Florida Supreme court nixes Indian casino pact

By Brendan Farrington

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned an agreement Gov. Charlie Crist signed with the Seminole Tribe to expand gambling at its casinos, saying the governor had no right to allow games that are illegal elsewhere in the state.

The November deal allowed the tribe to install Las Vegas-style slot machines and games such as blackjack and baccarat at their seven casinos, including the Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa. But Crist overstepped his authority, the court ruled.

"The governor does not have authority to legalize in some parts of the state, or for some persons, conduct that is otherwise illegal throughout the state," the opinion said.


The opinion doesn’t take issue with the slot machines, which are also legal at Broward and Miami-Dade County jai-alai frontons and horse and dog tracks, but rather with the table card games.

"What is legal in Florida is legal on tribal lands, and what is illegal in Florida is illegal there. Absent a compact, any gambling prohibited in the state is prohibited on tribal land," the opinion said.

But the tribe contends that it is operating under a federally approved compact which gives it authority for the games. The tribe has installed Vegas-style slots in six of its seven casinos and began blackjack games at its Hollywood casino on June 22.

"The tribe is studying the decision and plans no immediate change in any of the games that are offered," said spokesman Gary Bitner. "We want people to know that if they come to any of the casinos in the state this weekend for the holiday, that they can play."

The agreement gave the tribe exclusive rights to the card games. In exchange, the tribe gave Florida $50 million when Crist, a Republican, signed the compact. The state was to receive another $175 million over the next two years, $150 million for the third year of the agreement and at least $100 million a year for the remainder of the 25-year deal.

House Speaker Marco Rubio challenged Crist’s authority to sign the agreement and asked the Supreme Court for an opinion. Senate President Ken Pruitt later joined the challenge.

Crist’s office didn’t immediately return a call and an e-mail seeking comment. Rubio and Pruitt, both Republicans, praised the decision.

"The court’s decision is a victory for our constitutional system of checks and balances," Rubio said. "I look forward to an open and deliberative process that results in a new compact that doesn’t unnecessarily expand gambling in our state."


Pruitt said, "For the Senate, this case was about protecting the important concept of separation of powers. We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Legislature’s sole authority to make law."

Both local and out-of-town gamblers expressed disappointment with the ruling.

"Think about it, what’s a casino without blackjack," said Michael LaBella, 37, who was visiting the casino Thursday on business from El Paso, Texas. "I hate to say this, but compared to Vegas and Atlantic City, Florida has a long way to go."

Robert Dennis, 56, a blackjack lover from Miami, said the court’s decision doesn’t make sense.

"What is the big deal of getting rid of these games," Dennis said. "With the economy how it is, having more games would only help."

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