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Judge in Disney-DeSantis federal lawsuit removes himself

The Disney character Ariel from the movie “The Little Mermaid” waves to the crowd at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The company has asked its employees to return to the office four days a week.  (Max Becherer/The Washington Post)
By Aaron Gregg Washington Post

The federal judge assigned to Walt Disney Co.’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has recused himself from the case – a concession to the Republican governor, who had tried to remove the judge on grounds that his record showed bias.

At issue is Disney’s suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, which accuses the governor and presidential hopeful of engaging in political retaliation due to the entertainment giant’s opposition to a controversial education law.

The DeSantis legal team argued that the judge’s statements in two previous cases called his impartiality into question regarding Disney and called for him to step aside.

Late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker acquiesced but instead pointed to a potential financial conflict of interest as the reason – namely, a “relative within the third degree of relationship” who owns 30 shares of the Disney stock, he wrote.

Walker also noted that he could not be sure that the trial would not “substantially affect the value” of his relative’s stock.

“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 wrote.

Disney’s communications team did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern said the governor’s earlier motion to disqualify Walker “speaks for itself.”

The recusal of Walker deals a blow to Disney, which had chosen to file its lawsuit in federal court. (A countersuit from DeSantis’s handpicked theme park oversight board was filed in state court.)

From his perch as chief judge for the federal Northern District of Florida, based in Tallahassee, Walker has been a fierce obstacle to the governor’s agenda, repeatedly striking down DeSantis-backed legislation.

The Obama-appointed judge has also often laced his opinions with colorful language excoriating the governor’s more controversial initiatives.

Last year, for example, he struck down a law, nicknamed the “Stop Woke Act,” that would have restricted how university professors can present their curriculum – measures that DeSantis said would keep critical race theory out of state-college curriculums.

In a 139-page opinion, Walker started with a quote from George Orwell’s novel “1984” and called the law “positively dystopian.”

“(The) First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” Walker wrote.

Walker also struck down the DeSantis-backed Combating Public Disorder Act, which was passed in 2021 in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.It allowed authorities to detain arrested protesters until a first court appearance and established new felonies for organizing a violent demonstration.

Walker sided with the civil rights groups who sued to block it, concluding that cracking down on violent protesters in this way could also curtail the rights of peaceful protest organizers who weren’t involved in violent incidents.

If the law went into effect, Walker wrote, “the lawless few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians.”

In a motion filed last month, DeSantis’s legal team pointed to comments from the judge that explicitly mentioned Disney.

The judge had brought his own impartiality into question through his handling of two cases – both of which concerned heavily politicized rulings on DeSantis-approved legislation – because he explicitly cited Disney, wrote John Guard, Florida’s chief deputy attorney general.

In Link v. Corcoran, Walker contrasted state education officials’ claims of retaliation against the state’s “taking away Disney’s special status because they’re woke” as an example of material retaliation, according to the state’s motion.

And in Falls v. DeSantis et al, Walker referenced Disney as he weighed another allegation of retaliation against free speech, this time concerning public school teachers.

“Disney is going to lose its status because – arguably, because they made a statement that ran afoul of state policy of the controlling party,” Walker wrote, as quoted by the filing.

In his Thursday decision to step aside, Walker pushed back against the arguments about potential bias and accused the governor’s lawyers of cherry-picking language from these cases to support their position without acknowledging the underlying context.

“The motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping,” Walker wrote.

Walker’s decision is just the latest twist in the public war of words between DeSantis and Disney for more than a year.

It started when Disney expressed opposition to a Florida education law restricting discussion of sexual orientation in public school classrooms.

It spiraled into an argument over Disney’s control over the special tax district around Disney World, with the governor packing the theme parks’ governance board with a handpicked group of conservative allies.

Disney then filed its lawsuit against DeSantis in late April. The DeSantis-appointed oversight board for the Disney district filed a countersuit in state court just days later.