Obama-Appointed Federal Judge Backs Out of Disney v. DeSantis Case After Governor's Complaint


A liberal judge overseeing the First Amendment lawsuit that Walt Disney Parks filed against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and others is disqualifying himself, but he says it’s not because of bias concerns raised by the Republican governor.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a court filing Thursday that it was because a relative owns 30 shares of Disney stock.

Walker described the person as “a third-degree relative,” which typically means a cousin, a great-aunt or great-uncle, or a great-niece or great-nephew.

The governor’s lawyers had filed a motion to disqualify Walker last month because he had referenced the ongoing dispute between the DeSantis administration and Disney during hearings in two lawsuits before him dealing with free speech issues and fear of retaliation for violating new laws championed by the governor and Republican lawmakers.

The filing said Walker’s remarks “could reasonably imply that the Court has prejudged the retaliation question here.”

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“Because that question is now before this Court, and because that question involves highly publicized matters of great interest to Florida’s citizens, the Court should disqualify itself to prevent even the appearance of impropriety,” it said.

Disney had opposed the governor’s motion, claiming the judge had shown no bias.

The judge on Thursday called DeSantis’ arguments “without merit.”

Walker said that under the code of conduct for federal judges, he wasn’t required to look into the financial interests of third-degree relatives but he did so and decided that “disqualification from this proceeding is required under the circumstances.”

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“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,” said Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama.

The feud between DeSantis and Disney started last year after the entertainment giant lobbied against legislation banning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Conservatives described it as an “anti-groomer” bill.

The governor and GOP legislators responded by taking over Disney World’s self-governing district and appointing a new board of supervisors.

Before the new board came in, the company signed agreements with the old board made up of Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of design and construction authority.

In response, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal those agreements and made the theme park resort’s monorail system subject to state inspection.

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Disney filed the First Amendment lawsuit against the Florida governor and the DeSantis-appointed board in April, claiming violations of free speech and the contracts clause.

The DeSantis-appointed board sued Disney in state court in Orlando seeking to void the deals the company made with the previous board.

The governor declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination last week.

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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