TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge who has a history of ruling against Ron DeSantis is stepping aside from presiding over a high-profile case where Disney sued the Florida governor.
The state previously pushed to disqualify U.S. Chief District Judge Mark Walker based on comments he made in court about the ongoing dispute between the entertainment giant and Republican governor. DeSantis, who mounted a presidential bid, has made his fight with Disney a key part of his political brand.
Walker on Thursday called the motion filed by the state “meritless.” But he said he’ll remove himself from the case because he discovered last week that an unidentified “third-degree” relative of his owns 30 shares of Disney 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,” Walker wrote in a 14-page order. “Maintaining public trust in the judiciary is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our Republic.”
DeSantis has made his tussle with the California entertainment giant, which he has called a “woke corporation” from Burbank, a recurring feature of his re-election and now presidential campaign. He mentioned his fight with the company again on the campaign trail Thursday in New Hampshire, where he said “there will not be any compromise” with one of the state’s largest employers.
The feud between Disney and DeSantis started last year when the company came out in opposition to Florida’s “parental rights in education” law which bans classroom instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation in lower grades. Florida responded to Disney’s public opposition to the law, called “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, by eliminating the company’s self-governing status over thousands of acres in central Florida.
But before a new tourism district board — appointed by DeSantis — officially took over the area, the previous Disney-controlled board quietly signed an agreement that shifted control to the company. In a counter-move, the DeSantis-aligned board, and later the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature, moved to invalidate the agreement. Disney immediately sued DeSantis and others in federal court contending it was unconstitutional and retaliatory.
Walker, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, has presided over several contentious legal fights in the past several years that have involved DeSantis, former Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature.
Last year he blocked parts of the DeSantis-backed “Stop WOKE Act” and in 2021 he stopped the state’s “anti-riot” legislation that had been championed by DeSantis. He also ruled in 2022 that an election law passed by legislators was unconstitutional and discriminated against minorities. That decision was overturned earlier this year by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Attorneys for the state in May filed a motion calling for Walker’s disqualification. Disney opposed the motion and said that Walker had not shown any bias in the case.
The result of Walker’s decision is that the Disney lawsuit has now been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who once worked as Florida’s solicitor general under then-state Attorney General Pam Bondi.
In his order, Walker wrote that “I am confident that my colleagues on this court can preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely.”
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