A federal judge in Florida disqualified himself from a court case brought by Disney against Gov. Ron DeSantis, but not before blasting the governor’s legal team for engaging in “rank judge shopping.”
In a ruling late Thursday, Mark E. Walker, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, said he would no longer preside over the case, filed by Disney last month. Disney accused Mr. DeSantis and a board that oversees government services at Disney World of engaging in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
The case was reassigned to Judge Allen C. Winsor, who was appointed to the court in 2019 by President Donald J. Trump.
Lawyers for Mr. DeSantis had sought to disqualify Judge Walker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, because he twice mentioned Mr. DeSantis’s actions against Disney in unrelated court cases last year. The lawyers contended that Judge Walker’s brief remarks, made as he was posing hypothetical questions, “could reasonably be understood to reflect that the court has prejudged Disney’s retaliation theory here, and therefore create significant doubts about the court’s impartiality.”
Disney lawyers opposed the disqualification request — and Judge Walker agreed with them. He ruled that the cited remarks “cannot raise a substantial doubt about my impartiality in the mind of a fully informed, disinterested lay person.”
But in a surprise, Judge Walker recused himself, saying that he learned last week that a relative of his owned 30 shares of Disney stock.
He said in his ruling that he had no choice but to step aside since his relative’s “financial interest” could be affected by the case. “The size or dollar amount of the third-degree relative’s financial interest is irrelevant,” he wrote.
Disney declined to comment.
In related news on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis appointed Charbel Barakat, a Tampa lawyer and “Jeopardy!” champion, to fill a vacancy on the five-member board that oversees government services at Disney World and is at the center of the fight between the governor and the company. Mr. Barakat will replace Michael A. Sasso, who resigned from the board last week without giving a reason and whose wife, Meredith Sasso, was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court the next day.
Mr. DeSantis and Disney have been sparring since March 2022 over a special tax district that includes Disney World. The fight started when the company criticized a Florida education law that opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay” because it limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation. Disney’s criticism angered Mr. DeSantis, who repeatedly vowed payback.
Since then, Florida legislators, at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, have targeted Disney, the state’s largest taxpayer, with various hostile measures. In February, they gave Mr. DeSantis control over government services at Disney World, ending the company’s ability to self-govern its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county.
The board members appointed by Mr. DeSantis soon discovered that a previous, Disney-controlled board had approved contracts that locked in a growth plan for the resort. An effort to void those agreements has resulted in dueling lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and his allies in federal court and the governor’s tax district appointees returning fire in state court.