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Judge steps back from Disney case against DeSantis

The judge’s recusal is another wrinkle in the First Amendment case that has garnered national attention by pitting the corporate giant against the conservative governor running for president.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — A Florida judge has recused himself from the federal case brought by Disney against Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and a state oversight board.

In court documents filed on Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker denied DeSantis’ motion to disqualify, finding that his prior comments in another state retaliation case does not show he is predisposed to rule in Disney’s favor.

However, Walker, a Barack Obama appointee, removed himself from the case anyway because a family member owns 30 shares of Disney stock.

“When a judge becomes aware that a third-degree relative has a financial interest that may be affected by the outcome of a proceeding, such as the case here, that judge must determine whether the third-degree relative’s financial interest ‘could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding,’” Walker wrote in the 14-page order, adding that the size or dollar amount of the financial interest is irrelevant.

The judge noted that Disney’s own filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that the governor and oversight board’s actions could affect business operations.

“I am no speculator,” Walker wrote. “But plaintiff’s own allegations make clear that this case involves significant economic interests for its parent corporation, in which my third-degree relative owns stock.”

“Even though I believe it is highly unlikely that these proceedings will have a substantial effect on the Walt Disney Company, I choose to err on the side of caution—which, here, is also the side of judicial integrity—and disqualify myself,” he continued. “Maintaining public trust in the judiciary is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our republic.”

Neither Disney nor DeSantis’ office immediately responded to requests for comment.

The case will now be held before U.S. District Judge Allen C. Winsor, a Donald Trump appointee who previously dismissed a legal challenge to the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act, known more commonly as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

That law, which limits public school discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, was the catalyst for the tug-of-war between the entertainment giant and the conservative governor who is running for president.

Disney heavily criticized the bill, which was signed into law by DeSantis in March 2022, and vowed to end any political contributions to state lawmakers.

DeSantis immediately responded, attacking Disney as a “woke corporation” and directing the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature to remove Disney’s self-governing status that was in place for more than 50 years.

In February, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature renamed the theme park's special district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and the governor handpicked a new board of supervisors.

But before the previous board members left, they passed an agreement with Disney that allowed the company to control the district, effectively neutering the governor’s new board.

Clearly incensed, DeSantis announced a series of proposals to wrest control of the district from Disney, including placing tolls on roads within the district in addition to new taxes and state inspections of the theme park’s monorail.

At one point, noting that the state has several miles of undeveloped land adjacent to the theme park, the governor bounced around the idea of building a prison abutting the district.

In April, Disney responded with the federal lawsuit, accusing DeSantis and the board members of “targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”

Days after Disney filed its lawsuit, the new board countered with its own nearly 200-page lawsuit, filed in Orange County Circuit Court, seeking to invalidate the earlier agreement between Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

In his decision, Walker took one last shot at the governor for submitting a motion “wholly without merit.”

“In fact, I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping,” he wrote. “Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district.”

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