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GAMING TUG-OF-WAR IN COURT'S HANDS NOW

The state Supreme Court gives no indication when it will rule on the Crist-Seminole deal.

Florida's Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that represents a major test of limits to the governor's power and could affect the expansion of gambling in the state.

At issue is a 25-year compact signed in November between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, allowing the tribe to offer upgraded slot machines and so-called banked table games such as blackjack and baccarat that are illegal under Florida law.

In a power struggle between the state's two leading Republicans, House Speaker Marco Rubio has challenged Crist's right to sign the deal, saying he overstepped his authority.

But while Florida's highest court was hearing arguments in Tallahassee on Wednesday, gamblers at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood were already enjoying the upgraded slot machines permitted under the contested contract.

Introduced Monday, the Las Vegas-style slots will be rolled out to two other casinos in Broward County in March and to others, including the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, over the coming months, spokesman Gary Bitner said.

Rubio's attorney, former House Speaker Jon Mills, told the court that by approving such machines, Crist made a "dramatic and historic change in gambling policy and public policy in Florida" and that the Legislature was wrongly excluded.

"The governor does not get to implement public policy by himself," Mills argued.

Crist's attorney, Chris Kise, said the governor's dealings with the tribe were done in accordance with federal gaming law, "a matter about which the Legislature has no role."

"(Crist) made a decision because he needed to make a decision," he said.

What may undermine Rubio's case is that the House passed up an opportunity to pass a law that would have required legislative ratification of a gambling compact.

The justices sharply questioned both sides for about an hour but gave no indication of when they would issue a decision.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminole Tribe who participated in Wednesday's hearing, said that even if the court ruled in the governor's favor tomorrow, it will take a while to roll out the blackjack and baccarat games also included under the compact.

"Legally, the tribe has the right to do it until some court tells them not to," Richard said. "But logistically, it takes time and expense to hire and train those people and build the space for those games. You're not likely to see that before there's a decision from the Supreme Court."

Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report.

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