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Disney lawsuit judge recuses himself from case

Published:Sunday | June 4, 2023 | 1:29 AM
Travellers check out a jumbo screen projecting images of Walt Disney World in the east hall atrium at Orlando International Airport, Thursday, May 25, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.
Travellers check out a jumbo screen projecting images of Walt Disney World in the east hall atrium at Orlando International Airport, Thursday, May 25, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

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

Chief US 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”.

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, who last week declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, took over Disney World’s governing district through legislation passed by lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors.

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

AP