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Federal judge recuses himself in Disney lawsuit against DeSantis

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an Obama appointee, recused himself after the state questioned his impartiality.

Published: June 2, 2023 11:41pm

(The Center Square) -

ew details have emerged about the legal battle between the state of Florida and the Walt Disney Co. after the presiding judge recused himself from the case.

U.S. Judge Allen Winsor (appointed by former President Donald Trump) will take over the case after U.S. Judge Mark Walker (an Obama-era appointee) recused himself on Thursday. On Friday, Winsor issued an order setting a deadline for June 26 for the state of Florida to file a motion to dismiss the case and gave a deadline of July 26 for Disney to file a counter filing.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been engaged in the heated battle with the media behemoth since early 2022, after Disney publicly opposed House Bill 1557. It was called by opponents the "Don’t Say Gay Bill," which banned sex education, including gay and transgender issues, from kindergarten to eighth grade.

DeSantis stated that the Legislature was working to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, established in 1967, which gave Disney self-governing powers along with a plethora of tax breaks that include using tax-free municipal bonds for infrastructure improvements.

After Disney development deals were nullified by actions of the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (which replaced the Reedy Creek board), Disney filed legal proceedings against the state of Florida.

On May 19, the state filed a motion to disqualify Walker, citing that the judge would be unable to maintain impartiality in the case after DeSantis and his administration had been accused of retaliating against the company for having a different viewpoint. The filing further alleged that in two unrelated cases, the judge had used Disney as an example of "state retaliation."

According to the filing, this would imply that the court had already passed judgment on whether or not the state had retaliated against Disney for opposing legislation.

Disney counted with its own filing on May 25, alleging that the "defendants’ (DeSantis) motion to disqualify is premised on a misapprehension of the law and a misstatement of the facts," further adding that the court recently ruled in favor of DeSantis and other state officials in cases cited by DeSantis as evidence of potential bias against them.

On Thursday, Walker officially recused himself, however, he denied that it was for the reasons stated in the state’s original recusal request and instead offered his own explanation for doing so.

The reason that Walker is disqualifying himself, he says, is because he recently found out that a close relative owns 30 shares (worth around $2,700) in the Walt Disney Company, which is enough reason to disqualify himself.

"The size or dollar amount of the third-degree relative’s financial interest is irrelevant." Walker wrote, adding "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 said that the motion to disqualify him by DeSantis was without merit and that his use of hypothetical questions which referenced facts related to the Disney case, dealt with the same motivations of "political actors."

Walker also stated that DeSantis is using convenient language and judge-shopping.

"Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district," Walker stated in the court filing.

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