Disney vs. DeSantis Judge Recuses Himself After Court Denies Motion to Disqualify, Accuses DeSantis of ‘Judge Shopping’

Spencer Lloyd

Disney vs. DeSantis Judge Recuses Himself After Court Denies Motion to Disqualify, Accuses DeSantis of ‘Judge Shopping’

Despite the court denying the motion by Gov. DeSantis’ legal team to disqualify Judge Mark Walker from the case, Judge Walker has decided to remove himself from the case between Disney and the governor.

Judge Mark Walker
Credit: Tallahassee Democrat

Judge Walker was originally assigned to the case last month and the legal team behind Gov. DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District filed a motion to have him removed from the case, questioning his impartiality. Walker has previously ruled on cases such as DeSantis’ controversial Stop WOKE Act, blocking it in federal court.

The state’s complaint reads “This case involves claims that Defendants retaliated against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., Inc. based on Disney’s viewpoints. Yet two previous times, in two unrelated cases, the Court sua sponte offered “Disney” as an example of state retaliation. Those remarks—each derived from extrajudicial sources—were on the record, in open court, and could reasonably imply that the Court has prejudged the retaliation question here.”

In a full statement released as part of publicly available court documents, Judge Walker recused himself as a result of a relative “of the third degree” owning stock in The Walt Disney Company. He states:

“On Friday, May 26, 2023, I learned, and later confirmed, that a relative within the third degree of relationship owns thirty shares of stock in Plaintiff’s parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company. Upon learning this information, I became obligated to engage in a separate inquiry pursuant to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges to determine if the financial interest of my third-degree relative “could be substantially affected by the outcome of [this] proceeding. I have engaged in that inquiry and determined that disqualification from this proceeding is required under the circumstances.

Third-degree relatives generally include first cousins, great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, great-nieces, great-nephews, great-grandchildren, half-aunts, or half-uncles.

He also accused the DeSantis/CFTOD party of their own improprieties, stating “I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping. Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district.”

Federal Judge Allen C. Windsor is set to take over for all proceedings related to the case. The court had denied to move forward on any further action including petitions by the DeSantis team to dismiss the lawsuit entirely until this matter was resolved.

Disney Suing DeSantis & CFTOD Board

In their lawsuit against Governor DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board, Disney Parks & Resorts cites “a targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.” The plaintiff further argues that this chronology of events “threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”

Among other grievances, the Governor’s threat of new tolls and taxes, and the Board’s decision to void the company’s final agreement with the Reedy Creek Improvement District Board were included in the document.

They name Governor DeSantis, the CFTOD Board of Supervisors members, and now former District administrator John Classe. Glen Gilzean, Jr. is the new District administrator.

Disney is suing for “declaratory and injunctive relief.” Injunctive relief forces a party to act in a certain way or prevents them from doing various things.

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 federal judge originally attached to the lawsuit recused himself.

CFTOD Board Suing Disney

The CFTOD Board of Supervisors voted to file their own countersuit against Disney. While Disney’s lawsuit is through federal court, the Board’s lawsuit is through state court.

In their 188-page complaint, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District named itself as the plaintiff and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US Inc. as the defendant. Through nearly 200 pages of legalese, the district asks the state court to render Disney’s development agreement with the Reedy Creek Improvement District as unenforceable, null, and void. They also ask the same to be done of the restrictive covenants, which notably set the benchmark for expiry at 21 years after the death of the last living descendant of King Charles III, living as of the date of the document.

The CFTOB additionally asks that all agreements cannot be enforced on Disney’s end either. Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans and typically acts to rubber stamp Gov. DeSantis’ agenda, is working to pass a law that invalidates Disney’s agreement with Reedy Creek. Governor DeSantis said it was well within his power to do so.

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