A federal judge has recused himself from a civil case involving Walt Disney World and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but for different reasons than expected.
U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker’s recusal, filed Thursday, comes weeks after the governor filed a motion calling for Walker to be disqualified from the case because of his alleged pro-Disney bias.
“The DeSantis’ legal team pulled statements by the judge in two separate hearings, including in a case against former Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, in which plaintiffs said they feared they would face punishment as a result of ‘intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity’ surveys required by a 2021 state law,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.
“In the other case, plaintiffs claimed state officials would take action against plaintiffs’ schools if they expressed opinions that violated the Individual Freedom Act, dubbed the ‘Stop WOKE Act’ by DeSantis,” the paper reported.
The motion to disqualify claimed that Walker made “unprompted” remarks in these cases that suggested that Florida had eliminated Disney’s special status to punish it.
In the first case, he asked, “What’s in the record, for example — is there anything in the record that says we are now going to take away Disney’s special status because they’re woke?”
In the second, he said, “And then Disney is going to lose its status because — arguably, because they made a statement that run afoul — ran afoul of state policy of the controlling party.”
Disney lawyers, meanwhile, argued that Walker’s remarks didn’t meet the standard for disqualification.
In his ruling Thursday, Walker first slammed DeSantis’ team, claiming the legal precedents they’d cited were “cherry-picked and applied without context,” according to the Sentinel. He also accused the governor’s team of “rank judge-shopping.”
“My use of hypothetical questions referencing facts related to this case, in an earlier case also dealing with the motivations of political actors (including some of the same actors here), cannot raise a substantial doubt about my impartiality in the mind of a full informed, disinterested lay person,” he wrote in the ruling.
But despite this complaint, he went through with removing himself from the case anyway, arguing that he was obligated to “evaluate all potential grounds for disqualification,” not just the ones cited by DeSantis’ lawyers.
Federal Judge Mark Walker removes himself from Disney v DeSantis lawsuit because a family member owns stock
DeSantis admin had filed motion to disqualify Walker. He rejected that effort pic.twitter.com/R2OWtAsMzz
— Matt Dixon (@Mdixon55) June 1, 2023
“In his order denying DeSantis’ request but still choosing to disqualify himself, Walker revealed that last week he learned that a relative owns 30 shares of Disney stock and because any decision in the case could financially impact a close relative, he is obligated to remove himself from the case,” the Sentinel notes.
“Walker acknowledged that the 30 shares likely does not amount to a large sum of money but even if a family member owned just one share worth $1, that would still be enough to trigger his disqualification,” according to the Florida paper.
“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,'” the judge wrote in his ruling.
“An affirmative answer to that question requires disqualification from the proceeding. The size of dollar amount of the third-degree relative’s financial interest is irrelevant, as it is ‘not the size of the interest that is a concern…, but rather whether the interest could be substantially affected,'” he added.
And with that, he was removed from the case.
So what is the case about? In late April, Disney sued DeSantis after a five-member board he’d installed voted to void Disney’s Reedy Creek agreement.
“The Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials alleging a ‘targeted campaign of government retaliation’ after the company publicly opposed a state law that critics call ‘Don’t Say Gay,'” NBC News reported at the time.
The company alleged in the suit that a retaliation campaign was “orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech” and “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”
During his Twitter Space, DeSantis tells Disney they should withdraw their lawsuit, which he says they are using to try to keep special privileges Universal and SeaWorld are not afforded. pic.twitter.com/ax74Z7w5nK
— Mickey Views (@MickeyViews) May 24, 2023
“Disney regrets that it has come to this. But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials,” the suit reads.
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