A federal judge who was presiding over the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts case against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday disqualified himself from further participation in the case, citing a third-degree relative with stocks in the company, according to the order on disqualification.
Chief Judge Mark E. Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, has ruled against a handful of DeSantis priorities and his initial assignment to the case was widely viewed as an early victory for Disney.
Disney filed the lawsuit in April, accusing the Republican 2024 presidential prospect of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights when it objected to a state law restricting instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. DeSantis orchestrated a state takeover of a special taxing district in Central Florida that Disney had controlled for more than half a century as it built its theme park empire near Orlando.
In the order, Walker initially denied the governor’s legal team’s motion to disqualify him from presiding over the case. DeSantis’ attorneys had argued that questions Walker asked in “previous, related cases,” raised “substantial doubts” about the judge’s impartiality.
“Defendants’ motion is without merit. My use of hypothetical questions referencing facts related to this case, in an earlier case also dealing with the motivations of political actors (including some of the same actors here), cannot raise a substantial doubt about my impartiality in the mind of a fully informed, disinterested lay person,” Walker wrote in the order. “Defendants cherry-pick language from these cases to support their position without acknowledging the wholly distinguishable context underlying each decision.”
“In fact, I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping. Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district,” Walker added.
However, Walker concluded his order by disqualifying himself from the case anyway, citing a third-degree relative with stock in the Walt Disney company “which could be substantially affected by the outcome of this case.”
The case has now been reassigned to Judge Allen C. Winsor for all further proceedings. “I am confident that my colleagues on this Court can preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely,” Walker wrote.