Choose in Disney DeSantis case dismisses over inventory battle

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

Joe Raedle | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A federal judge overseeing Disney’s civil free speech lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pulled out of the case Thursday, just days after learning that one of his relatives owns stock The Walt Disney Company.

The case will be taken on by Judge Allen Winsor, an appointee for former President Donald Trump, according to the court filing. Trump is up against DeSantis for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

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Judge Mark Walker chose to withdraw from the case, despite denying DeSantis’ request for disqualification. Attorneys for the governor and the other defendants had argued that Walker’s comments in separate trials cast doubt on his impartiality in the Disney case.

Walker, who was appointed to the bench by ex-President Barack Obama, called the governor’s argument “baseless” in a complaint filed in US District Court in Tallahassee, Fla. Nonetheless, in the same filing, he concluded that he had to disqualify “for reasons unrelated to the Defendants’ unsubstantiated claim.”

Walker said he learned Friday that “a third-degree relative owns thirty shares” in Disney’s parent company. The judge said he opened an investigation into the matter and ultimately “ruled that, in the circumstances, a disqualification from this proceeding is necessary.”

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

Disney shares closed at $88.59 on Thursday. Thirty shares at this price is approximately $2,658.

However, Walker said that according to the judicial code of conduct to which he is bound, “the level or dollar amount of the third-degree relative’s financial interest is immaterial.”

According to court law, even if the relative owned only a single share, “it is clear that the impact on the third-degree relative’s investment — not the size of the investment — determines the disqualification,” Walker wrote.

Disney’s allegations make it clear that this case “involves significant economic interests for the parent company in which my third relative has an interest,” the judge wrote.

Disney alleges that DeSantis launched a political retaliation campaign against the company after it publicly denounced the controversial classroom law, which critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” Those retaliatory actions, which include DeSantis and its allies against Walt Disney World’s special tax district and its recent development deals, threatened Disney’s business, the company claimed.

“While I believe it is highly unlikely that these proceedings will have any significant impact on The Walt Disney Company, I’d rather play it safe – which is also the side of judicial integrity here – and disqualify myself,” Walker wrote .

“Maintaining public confidence in the judiciary is of paramount importance, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our republic,” the judge wrote.

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

Weeks after Disney, under then-CEO Bob Chapek, opposed the classroom law and vowed to help repeal it, the Republican-majority Florida legislature voted in April 2022 to disband the special tax district that had allowed the company to be Florida effectively self-managing operations since the 1960s.

The district ultimately remained intact, but its board of directors was replaced with members hand-picked by DeSantis.

Disney filed suit after that board voted to cancel development contracts the company had entered into just before the new board took power. The Management Board has filed a counterclaim with a state court. Disney has moved to have the case dismissed.

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