Disney opposes DeSantis request to disqualify judge in free speech lawsuit
Disney is opposing a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis to disqualify a judge overseeing the company’s First Amendment lawsuit against the Florida governor and others in which Disney says it was punished for speaking out against Florida legislation that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
Disney said in court papers filed Thursday that the request by attorneys for DeSantis, who declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination earlier this week, didn’t come close to meeting the standards set out in Florida law for requiring a judge to be disqualified.
Last week, DeSantis’ attorneys filed a motion seeking to disqualify Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who is presiding over the case in federal court in Tallahassee. The motion said Walker referenced the ongoing dispute between the DeSantis administration and Disney during hearings in two unrelated lawsuits before him dealing with free speech issues and fear of retaliation for violating new laws championed by the governor and Republican lawmakers.
Under Florida law, grounds for disqualification include bias and a conflict of interest. In its response, Disney said the judge had shown no bias.
“Judges are not prohibited from referring accurately to widely-reported news events during oral arguments, nor must they disqualify themselves if cases related to those events happen to come before them months later,” Disney said in its filing.
Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama and is now chief judge of the district, has said in court filings that he won’t take any action in the case until he rules on whether he should be disqualified.
The feud between DeSantis and Disney started last year after the company, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed legislation concerning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s governing district through legislation passed by lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors. Before the new board came in, the company signed agreements with the old board made up of Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of design and construction authority.
In response, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal those agreements and made the theme park resort’s monorail system subject to state inspection, when it previously had been done in-house.
Disney filed the First Amendment lawsuit against the Florida governor and the DeSantis-appointed board last month in federal court in Tallahassee, claiming violations of free speech and the contracts clause. The DeSantis-appointed board earlier this month sued Disney in state court in Orlando seeking to void the deals the company made with the previous board.
Last week, Disney announced that it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California to work in digital technology, finance and product development.