Ron DeSantis Gets a New Judge in Disney’s Free Speech Suit

In an early blow to Disney’s suit against Ron DeSantis for control of the district that oversees development around the company’s theme parks, the Republican governor has won a bid to disqualify the judge who was initially assigned the case. The judge denied DeSantis’ motion to disqualify him, but then recused himself anyway.

U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker, who ruled against DeSantis last year in a separate First Amendment case over a law restricting instruction from university professors on what students can learn, will hand off the case to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, an appointee of former president Donald Trump. While maintaining that he’s not biased against DeSantis, Walker concluded on Thursday he must recuse himself because a member of his extended family owns stock in The Walt Disney Company, which he said “could be substantially affected by the outcome of this case.”

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Disney and DeSantis are trading blows in different courts in a legal battle for developmental authority over Walt Disney World. The entertainment giant alleged in a suit filed in May that the governor’s hand-picked oversight board illegally voided an agreement that allegedly transferred certain powers of the company’s now-dissolved special district back to Disney. It argued that it’s been the victim of a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” that now “threatens [its] business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.” The company pointed to statements from DeSantis that he plans “to look at things like taxes on the hotels,” “tolls on the roads,” “developing some of the property that the district owns” with “more amusement parks,” and putting a state prison next to its Orlando theme park.

Walker said he must disqualify himself but not because he favors Disney or is biased against DeSantis. He concluded that the code of conduct for federal judges requires him to sit out of the case, pointing to a “relative within the third degree of relationship” who owns 30 shares of stock in The Walt Disney Company.

The size of the financial interest is irrelevant to the determination, the judge said. He wrote the judicial ethics is “clear that the impact on the third-degree relative’s investment — not the amount of the investment — governs disqualification.”

An adverse outcome for Disney in the case, he found, could affect The Walt Disney Company’s share price.

“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,” he wrote. “Maintaining public trust in the judiciary is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our Republic.”

In a case concerning Florida’s so-called Stop Woke Act, Walker ruled against DeSantis and blocked parts of the law. “In the popular television series Stranger Things, the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world,” Walker wrote. “Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down.”

After Walker recused himself, the case was assigned to Winsor. In February, the judge dismissed for a second time a suit challenging the Parental Rights in Education Law, which prohibits instruction on gender and sexuality through the third grade. He found that students, parents and teachers who brought the suit don’t have standing to sue.

Notably, Disney’s opposition to the so-called Don’t Say Gay law instigated its feud with DeSantis.

Disney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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