TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which runs some of the state’s most popular and most profitable casinos, scored a major victory Wednesday after a federal judge ruled the tribe can keep blackjack tables at its gambling operations.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle sided with the tribe in a yearlong legal tussle that could jeopardize payments the Seminoles now make to the state.
Hinkle ruled that state regulators working under Gov. Rick Scott allowed dog and horse tracks to put in card games that mimicked ones that were supposed to be exclusive to tribe-owned casinos for a five-year period. Because the state allowed this monopoly to be “easily evaded,” Hinkle ruled that the tribe could keep its blackjack tables for another 14 years.
Seminole tribe officials praised the ruling and said it should guarantee that jobs at the casinos — which include the Hard Rock in Hollywood and Tampa — would remain in place.
“The Seminole Tribe is very pleased with Judge Hinkle’s ruling and is carefully reviewing it,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles. “The tribe believes the ruling provides for its future stability and ensures 3,600 Seminole Gaming employees will keep their jobs.”
Both sides signed a deal in 2010 that permitted the tribe to have blackjack at its casinos as well as slot machines at most of its locations. Florida has collected nearly $1.7 billion from the tribe as a result.
But the blackjack provision expired in 2015, and with dog and horse tracks also lobbying hard to expand, the Florida Legislature rejected a new larger deal that would have also allowed the tribe to offer craps and roulette.
Unable to reach a new agreement, the state and tribe filed lawsuits against each other in late 2015. The tribe accused state officials of failing to negotiate in good faith, while the Scott administration wanted a federal judge to order the removal of the blackjack tables.
The tribe and the state squared off in court for three days in early October and, during the trial, Hinkle seemed skeptical about some of the explanations state regulators gave while on the stand. In his ruling, Hinkle said some of the activities permitted by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation were “egregious.”
It’s not clear whether the state will appeal the decision. Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said attorneys for the state were reviewing the ruling.
The ruling could also prompt the Seminoles and the state to return to the negotiating table. Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen told reporters during the trial that the tribe has had a good relationship with the state and would like it to continue.
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