ORLANDO, Fla. – A federal judge overseeing the First Amendment lawsuit that Walt Disney Parks filed against Gov. Ron DeSantis and others is disqualifying himself, but not based on Florida Gov.’s claims of bias.
Chief US District Judge Mark Walker said in a court filing Thursday that it was because a relative owned 30 Disney shares. Walker described the person as “a third-degree relative,” typically meaning a cousin, great-aunt or great-uncle, or great-niece or great-nephew.
The governor’s attorneys last month filed a motion to disqualify Walker for appearing before him during hearings in two independent lawsuits over issues of free speech and fear of retaliation for violating new laws the governor has endorsed was related to the ongoing dispute between the DeSantis administration and Disney and Republican lawmakers.
Disney had opposed the governor’s request, saying the judge had shown no bias.
The judge on Thursday called DeSantis’ arguments “baseless.” DeSantis last week declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Under the code of conduct for federal judges, Walker was not required to review the financial interests of third-degree relatives, but he did, ruling that “an exclusion from this proceeding is necessary in the circumstances,” he said.
“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 said , who was nominated for the Bundesbank by President Barack Obama in 2012.
The DeSantis-Disney feud began last year after the company faced significant pressure to publicly oppose a law teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, which critics dubbed “don’t say gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s governing body by law and appointed a new board of directors. Before the new board came in, the company signed agreements with the old board, made up of Disney supporters, who stripped the new officers of design and construction authority.
In response, the Florida Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board of directors to rescind those agreements, and made the theme park-resort monorail system subject to state inspection, while this had previously been done internally.
Disney filed the First Amendment lawsuit in April against the Florida governor and the DeSantis-appointed board of directors, alleging violations of free speech and contract clauses. The DeSantis-appointed board, known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, sued Disney in Orlando state court, seeking to void the agreements the company had made with the previous board.
DeSantis on Thursday appointed Tampa Attorney Charbel Barakat to the board of directors to replace Michael Sasso, who resigned last month, around the same time the governor appointed Sasso’s wife, Meredith, to the Florida Supreme Court.
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP