State Supreme Court Rules Legislature Can OK Slots

The high court let stand a lower court ruling

By Gary Fineout
|  Friday, Apr 27, 2012  |  Updated 5:43 PM EDT
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The Florida Supreme Court effectively ruled Friday that slot machines can be allowed anywhere in the state.

The high court let stand a lower court ruling that not only ends a battle over whether slots can be added to a South Florida race track, but could rekindle a push to add slot machines in other parts of the state.

The court issued a one-page ruling saying it was dismissing the case but did not discuss the reasons why.

Five of the seven justices supported the order.

"It's no real surprise that they decided to do this," said Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney who represented one of the groups involved in the case. "It affirms that the Legislature controls the decision to expand or contract gaming in the state."

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal last year upheld a 2009 law that allowed slots at the famed historic track Hialeah Park — whose flamingos were once seared into the national consciousness with Miami Vice.

Some of Hialeah Park's pari-mutuel competitors, which already have approval for slot machines, had challenged the law also allowing them at Hialeah. Those other tracks argued that Hialeah had been excluded from a 2004 state constitutional amendment permitting slots at other pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The court's decision comes weeks after the Florida Legislature rejected a push to permit three large resort casinos. That measure was backed by Las Vegas Sands and Genting, the Malaysian company that has already spent nearly a half-billion dollars to acquire downtown Miami real estate in the hopes of building a massive resort and casino complex.

But the bill stalled after weeks of heavy lobbying by business groups, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and existing dog and horse tracks. Since the session, there has been discussion about bypassing the Legislature and instead taking the issue to voters in 2014.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and sponsor of the casino bill, said the ruling just reinforces the need for the Legislature to assert more control over gambling in the state. Her bill also called for creating a new regulatory structure to oversee casinos and other types of gambling already allowed.

"We need to wake up," Bogdanoff said. "We need to stop ignoring it and not dirty our hands. ... We should not be abdicating our responsibility."

Florida voters had rejected three prior casino gambling constitutional amendments. But in 2004, voters approved an amendment to permit slots at seven Miami-Dade and Broward horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons if local voters agreed.

A circuit court judge in Tallahassee and the appeals court said that amendment did not prevent the Legislature from approving additional slot machines anywhere.

The Friday ruling, however, does not end another ongoing legal dispute over slot machines.

Three north Florida counties have approved adding slots at local tracks. But state regulators say they will abide by Attorney General Pam Bondi's legal opinion that says only voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties can authorize slots.

So far none of the tracks have requested a license from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Palm Beach County plans to hold a referendum on slot machines this November, but that decision is being challenged by a Boca Raton woman.

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