TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Supreme Court decision Friday to stay out of a controversial gambling debate paved the way for Palm Beach County's November slot machine referendum.
The high court's refusal to take up the Miami-Dade case and prevent a Hialeah racetrack from adding slots, meant that the Palm Beach Kennel Club might also get slots if voters approve, the dog track's lawyer, John Lockwood said. "The Palm Beach Kennel Club is pleased with the ruling and this clears the way for their slots referendum," Lockwood said.
The court dismissed efforts by Calder Race Course and owners of the Magic City Casino and Miami Jai Alai to limit slots to seven pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
That has an impact in Palm Beach County because an appellate court decision last fall opened the door for counties, including Palm Beach, to put referenda before voters allowing them to decide whether their pari-mutuels should be allowed to add slots gambling.
Palm Beach County commissioners voted in December to place the referendum on the ballot in the hopes that a favorable vote would lead to slot machines at the Palm Beach County Kennel Club. Voters in three counties -- Gadsden, Hamilton and Washington -- have already signed off on slots.
Gambling lawyers throughout the state and officials of Gov. Rick Scott's administration were anxiously awaiting what many hoped would be a Supreme Court decision settling the issue.
Instead, focus is now on the Palm Beach County lawsuit filed by a Boca Raton woman last month. The Palm Beach court case could ripple throughout the state if Circuit Court Judge Janis Keyser yanks the referendum off the ballot.
"Obviously every pari-mutuel in the state is watching that with eager interest," said Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream Race Track. Dunbar also is a part-owner of a Gretna horse track in Gadsden County, where he hopes to soon start slot machine gambling. "All of a sudden all eyes go to Palm Beach."
The suit filed by Boca Raton resident Sandra Medlicott argues that pari-mutuels should not be authorized to offer slots without changes to the state constitution or permission from the Legislature.
A lawyer for Medlicott has asked that the Palm Beach County referendum be taken off the ballot, saying it "may be nothing more than a straw poll" because state officials have already said they will not issue slots permits outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. The referendum misleads voters "as to the true impact of the referendum," attorney D. David Keller argued in his filing.
The county is expected to file its response to Medlicott's suit on Monday.
But whether Keyser upholds or nixes the referendum is likely to lead to more litigation in a state where gambling forces, including the Seminole Tribe, are fighting to protect their turf -- or expand it.
Introducing slot machines at pari-mutuels outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties could jeopardize the $150 million the Seminoles pay annually to the state as part of a 2009 deal giving the tribe "exclusivity" of certain types of gambling.
Gambling opponents decried the Supreme Court's decision to stay out of the case, and hinted they may take an alternate route to settle the issue.
"Florida voters have overwhelmingly rejected casino gambling in three separate statewide votes," No Casinos President John Sowinski said in a statement. "Perhaps it is time for a constitutional amendment to ensure that voters will continue to have the final say on whether they want more crime, more addiction, and higher social costs for taxpayers."