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Card, chip makers may be safe in fight over Indian blackjack

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Manufacturers of cards and chips who sell to the Seminole Tribe of Florida may be spared, at least in civil court, in any legal throwdown over blackjack at the Seminole Tribe of Florida‘s casinos.

The Tribe is still offering blackjack despite the expiration of a special deal with the state that allows it to offer “banked card games.”

Both sides are now suing each other in federal court even as they try to broker a new agreement. Current games are technically unauthorized and may be illegal gambling, depending on which side you talk to.

This week, a gambling-law expert told FloridaPolitics.com that card and chip makers and their distributors could be liable for “contributing” to illegal gambling.

But in 2011, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich in Tampa dismissed a lawsuit against the Tribe filed by a group of disgruntled gamblers.

They claimed to have lost wagers at Seminole casinos in Tampa and Hollywood in 2008-10, after the state Supreme Court had invalidated a previous 2007 agreement between the state and Tribe allowing them to offer slots and card games.

Their argument was that since the Tribe didn’t have authority to offer gambling during that time, they should get their money back.

The gamblers sued not only the Tribe, but card and chip makers, and even the billboard company the Seminoles used to advertise their casinos.

Kovachevich eventually decided the case had no legs, because the Legislature had repealed the section of state law that otherwise would have given them a right to sue.

Even if they had a case, the gamblers wouldn’t be able to prove how the card and chip makers and others should be held liable, the judge added.

Her decision does not, however, automatically foreclose other legal action, including criminal prosecution.

The Tribe’s lawyers have made clear their client won’t discontinue the games. The Seminoles say the state broke its promise of exclusivity by allowing electronic blackjack and player-banked poker elsewhere in the state, including in South Florida.

Professor I. Nelson Rose of California’s Whittier Law School said the state “has many ways to prevent the Tribe from continuing to offer blackjack and other card games,” even though federal law doesn’t allow the state to go onto tribal land to enforce anti-gambling laws.

He mentioned the Florida RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, which gives the state the authority to go after “any person who has with criminal intent received any proceeds derived, directly or indirectly from illegal gambling activity.”

In any event, both sides are declining comment on what their next steps will be, citing the pending litigation.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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