Judge at Disney recuses DeSantis over stock conflict

A sign near the entrance to Walt Disney World on May 22, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

Joe Radle | Getty Images News | Good pictures

A federal judge overseeing Disney’s civil free speech lawsuit against a Florida governor recused himself from the case on Thursday, days after learning that one of his relatives owns a stake in The Walt Disney Company.

Former President Donald Trump appointee Judge Alan Winsor will hear the case, according to court records. Trump is running against DeSantis for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Although Judge Mark Walker rejected DeSantis’ request to disqualify himself, he decided to remove himself from the case. Attorneys for the governor and other defendants argued that Walker’s comments in separate cases raised questions about his impartiality in Disney’s case.

Appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, Walker called the governor’s argument “unmerited” in a court filing in United States District Court in Tallahassee, Florida. But in the same submission he concluded that he should disqualify himself “for reasons unrelated to the defendants’ unmeritorious motion.”

Walker said he learned Friday that “a third-degree relative owns thirty shares” of Disney’s parent company. The judge opened a hearing on the matter and ultimately “determined that, under the circumstances, disqualification from this action is warranted.”

Although the judge did not identify the relative by name or relationship, third-degree relatives include great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, great uncles and aunts, and first cousins.

Shares of Disney closed at $88.59 on Thursday. Thirty shares at that price total about $2,658.

But Walker said that under the judicial protocol he was bound by, “the degree or dollar amount of a third-degree relative’s financial interest is irrelevant.”

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Walker wrote that even if the relative held only one share of the stock, the judicial code “governed disqualification by the effect on the third-degree relative’s investment — not the amount of the investment.”

Disney’s allegations that the case “involves significant economic interests in its parent company, in which my third-degree relative owns stock,” the judge wrote.

Disney accuses DeSantis of waging a campaign of political vendetta against the company after it publicly denounced a controversial classroom bill that critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The company alleged that the retaliation, which included DeSantis and his associates targeting Walt Disney World’s special tax district and its recent development deals, threatened Disney’s business.

“While I believe it is highly unlikely that these actions will have a significant impact on The Walt Disney Company, I err on the side of caution — here, too, on the side of judicial integrity — and disqualify myself,” Walker wrote.

“Now more than ever in the history of our republic, maintaining public confidence in the judiciary is more important,” the judge wrote.

Walker’s development is the latest twist in a long feud between DeSantis and Disney, one of Florida’s top employers.

Just weeks after Disney under then-CEO Bob Chabeck came out against the classroom bill and pledged to help repeal it, the Republican-majority Florida Legislature voted to dissolve the special tax district in April 2022, allowing the company to effectively manage its Florida. Activities since the 1960s.

The district was eventually left intact, but its board was replaced by members elected by DeSantis.

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Disney sued after the board voted to cancel development deals the company made shortly before the new board took office. The board countersued in state court. Disney has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

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