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Disney lawsuit judge removes himself from case but not for reasons cited by DeSantis

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, , Associated Press,
Published: June 2, 2023, 11:33am

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge overseeing the First Amendment lawsuit that Walt Disney Parks filed against Gov. Ron DeSantis and others is disqualifying himself, but not because of bias claims made by the Florida governor.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a court filing Thursday that it was because a relative owns 30 shares of Disney stock. Walker described the person as “a third-degree relative,” which typically means a cousin, a great-aunt or great-uncle, or a great-niece or great-nephew.

The governor’s lawyers had filed a motion to disqualify Walker last month because he had referenced the ongoing dispute between the DeSantis administration and Disney during hearings in two unrelated lawsuits before him dealing with free speech issues and fear of retaliation for violating new laws championed by the governor and Republican lawmakers.

Disney had opposed the governor’s motion, saying the judge had shown no bias.

The judge on Thursday called DeSantis’ arguments “without merit.” DeSantis declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination last week.

Under the code of conduct for federal judges, Walker wasn’t required to look into the financial interests of third-degree relatives but did so and decided that “disqualification from this proceeding is required under the circumstances,” he said.

“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,” said Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama.

The feud between DeSantis and Disney started last year after the company, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed legislation concerning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s governing district through legislation passed by lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors. Before the new board came in, the company signed agreements with the old board made up of Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of design and construction authority.

In response, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal those agreements and made the theme park resort’s monorail system subject to state inspection, when it previously had been done in-house.

Disney filed the First Amendment lawsuit against the Florida governor and the DeSantis-appointed board in April, claiming violations of free speech and the contracts clause. The DeSantis-appointed board, known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, sued Disney in state court in Orlando seeking to void the deals the company made with the previous board.

DeSantis on Thursday named Tampa attorney Charbel Barakat to the oversight board to replace Michael Sasso, who resigned last month around the same time the governor appointed Sasso’s wife, Meredith, to the Florida Supreme Court.

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