A sign near the entrance to Walt Disney World on May 22, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.
Joe Riddle | News from Getty Images | Getty Images
A federal judge overseeing Disney’s free-speech civil suit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recused himself from the case Thursday, days after learning that one of his relatives owned stock in The Walt Disney Company.
The case will be handled by Judge Alan Winsor, appointed by former President Donald Trump, according to court filings. Trump is running against DeSantis for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Judge Mark Walker decided to recuse himself from the case, although he denied DeSantis’ request to have him disqualified. Attorneys for the governor and the other defendants argued that Walker’s remarks in separate lawsuits raised questions about his impartiality in the Disney case.
Walker, who was appointed to the judge by former President Barack Obama, in a lawsuit in United States District Court in Tallahassee, Florida, called the governor’s argument “baseless.” But he nevertheless concluded in the same filing that it should be disqualified “for reasons unrelated to defendants’ frivolous motion.”
Walker said he learned Friday that “a third-degree relative owns thirty shares” of Disney’s parent corporation. The judge said he launched an investigation into the matter and ultimately “decided that in the circumstances a disqualification from these proceedings is necessary.”
Although the judge did not identify the relative by name or relationship, 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 that price amount to about $2,658.
But Walker said that under the judicial code of conduct by which he is bound, “the size or dollar amount of a third-degree relative’s financial interest is irrelevant.”
Even if the relative owned only one share, the case law is “clear that the impact on a third-degree relative’s investment — not the amount of the investment — governs the disqualification,” Walker wrote.
Disney’s allegations make it clear that this case “involves significant economic interests for its parent corporation in which my third-degree relative owns stock,” the judge wrote.
Disney alleges DeSantis waged a political campaign of revenge against the company after she publicly denounced the controversial classroom bill, which critics called “Don’t Say Gay.” That retaliation, which includes DeSantis and his allies targeting Walt Disney World’s special tax district and its recent development deals, has threatened Disney’s business, the company claims.
“Although I believe it is highly unlikely that this proceeding will have a material effect on The Walt Disney Company, I am choosing to err on the side of caution — which here is also the side of judicial integrity — and disqualify myself,” Walker wrote.
“Maintaining public confidence in the judicial system is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our republic,” the judge wrote.
The Walker development is the latest wrinkle in a long feud between DeSantis and Disney, one of Florida’s top employers.
Weeks after Disney, under then-CEO Bob Chapek, spoke out against the classroom bill and pledged to help repeal it, Florida’s Republican-majority legislature voted in April 2022 to dissolve the special taxing district that allowed of the company to effectively self-manage Florida operations since 1960.
The district was ultimately left intact, but its board was replaced with members handpicked by DeSantis.
Disney sued after that board voted to void development deals the company struck shortly before the new board took over. The board countersued in state court. Disney has requested that this case be dismissed.