In an early blow to Disney’s lawsuit against Ron DeSantis for control of the district overseeing development around the company’s theme parks, the Republican governor has won an effort to disqualify the judge who was initially assigned the case.
U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker, who ruled last year against DeSantis in a separate First Amendment case over a law restricting college professors’ instruction on what students can learn, will transfer the case to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. While he insists he’s not biased against DeSantis, Walker concluded Thursday that he should step down because a member of his extended family owns stock in The Walt Disney Company, which he said could be “significantly affected by the outcome of this case.”
Disney and DeSantis trade blows in several courts in a legal battle over developmental jurisdiction over Walt Disney World. The entertainment giant alleged in a lawsuit filed in May that the governor’s hand-picked board of trustees unlawfully voided an agreement that allegedly transferred some powers from the company’s now-dissolved special district back to Disney. It argued that it has been subjected to a “targeted government retaliatory campaign” which now “threatens (its) business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights”. The company pointed to statements by DeSantis that he plans “to include things like taxes on the hotels,” “toll roads,” “develop some of the real estate the district owns” with “more theme parks,” and a state prison next door. the Orlando theme park.
Walker said he should disqualify himself, but not because he favors Disney or is biased against DeSantis. He concluded that the code of conduct for federal judges requires him to stay out of the case, pointing to a “relative within the third degree of kinship” who owns 30 shares of stock in The Walt Disney Company.
The size of the financial interest is irrelevant, according to the judge. He wrote that the court ethics “is clear that the impact on the third-degree relative’s investment—not the amount of the investment—determines disqualification.”
An unfavorable outcome for Disney in the case, he found, could affect The Walt Disney Company’s stock price.
“While I believe it is highly unlikely that this proceeding will have a substantial effect on The Walt Disney Company, I choose to err on the side of caution – whatever the case for judicial integrity here – and disqualify myself.” He wrote. “Maintaining public confidence in the judiciary is of paramount importance, perhaps now more than at any time in the history of our Republic.”
In a case involving Florida’s so-called “Stop Woke Act,” Walker spoke out against DeSantis and blocked parts of the law. “In the popular television series Stranger things, the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world,” Walker wrote. “Recently, Florida seemed upside down like a First Amendment.”
After Walker withdrew, the case was assigned to Winsor. In February, the judge dismissed for the second time a lawsuit against the Parental Rights in Education Act, which bans instruction on gender and sexuality through third grade. He found that students, parents and teachers who filed the lawsuit have no legal standing.
In particular, Disney’s opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law led to his feud with DeSantis.
Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.