A Florida federal judge disqualified himself from a lawsuit Disney had brought against Gov. Ron DeSantis, but not before convicting the governor’s legal department of rank judge shopping.
In a ruling late Thursday, Chief Justice of the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Mark E. Walker, said he would no longer preside over the case Disney filed last month. Disney accused Mr. DeSantis and an executive overseeing government services at Disney World of engaging in “a targeted government retaliation campaign.”
The case was assigned to Judge Allen C. Winsor, who was appointed to the court in 2019 by President Donald J. Trump.
Attorneys for Mr. DeSantis had attempted to disqualify President Barack Obama-appointed Judge Walker for twice mentioning Mr. DeSantis’ actions against Disney in independent trials last year. The attorneys contended that Judge Walker’s brief remarks, made when asking hypothetical questions, “could reasonably be understood to reflect that the court here anticipated Disney’s theory of retaliation, and therefore cast serious doubts on the impartiality of the.” let court arise.”
Disney’s attorneys denied the disqualification motion — and Judge Walker agreed with them. He ruled that the quoted remarks “cannot cast any substantial doubt upon my impartiality on the part of a fully informed, disinterested layperson.”
But surprisingly, Judge Walker apologized and said he learned last week that a relative of his owns 30 Disney shares.
In his ruling, he said he had no choice but to resign because his relative’s “financial interests” could be adversely affected by the case. “The level or dollar amount of the third degree relative’s financial interest is immaterial,” he wrote.
Disney declined to comment.
In related news Thursday, Mr. DeSantis appointed Charbel Barakat, a Tampa attorney, and “Jeopardy!” Champion to fill a vacancy on the five-member board that oversees government services at Disney World and is at the center of the battle between the governor and the company stands. Mr. Barakat will replace Michael A. Sasso, who resigned from the board without reason last week and whose wife, Meredith Sasso, was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court the next day.
Mr. DeSantis and Disney have been at odds over a special tax district that includes Disney World since March 2022. The fight began when the company criticized a Florida education law that opponents dubbed “don’t say gay” for restricting teaching in classes about gender identity and sexual orientation. Disney’s criticism angered Mr. DeSantis, who repeatedly promised revenge.
Since then, Florida lawmakers have targeted Disney, the state’s largest taxpayer, with various hostile measures at the urging of Mr. DeSantis. In February, they gave Mr. DeSantis control of government services at Disney World, ending the company’s ability to self-manage its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county.
The board members appointed by Mr. DeSantis soon found that a previous Disney-controlled board had approved contracts that outlined a growth plan for the resort. Attempts to void these agreements have resulted in litigation, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and his associates in federal court and commissioners from the Governor’s Tax District returning fire in state court.