ORLANDO, Fla.—Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking that a federal judge be disqualified from the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Disney against the Florida governor and his appointees, claiming the jurist’s prior statements in other cases have raised questions about his impartiality on the state’s efforts to take over Disney World’s governing body.
DeSantis’s attorney filed a motion in federal court in Tallahassee on Friday seeking to disqualify Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker from overseeing the lawsuit filed by Disney last month. The lawsuit alleges that DeSantis and his appointees violated the company’s right to free speech, as well as the contracts clause, by taking over the special governing district that previously had been controlled by Disney supporters after Disney opposed Florida legislation that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
The Republican governor’s motion was filed a day after 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, amid an ongoing feud with DeSantis.
DeSantis’s motion said Walker referenced the ongoing dispute between his 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 DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. One of those was a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Florida professors that challenged a new law establishing a survey about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses.
Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama and is now chief judge of the district, tossed out that lawsuit on the grounds that the professors didn’t have standing to challenge the law championed by DeSantis and Florida lawmakers.
In the first case, Walker said, “What’s in the record, for example—is there anything in the record that says we are now going to take away Disney’s special status because they’re woke?”
In the second case, the judge said, “And then Disney is going to lose its status because—arguably, because they made a statement that run afoul—ran afoul of state policy of the controlling party,” according to the DeSantis motion.
Disney and DeSantis have been engaged in a tug-of-war for more than a year that has engulfed the GOP governor in criticism as he prepares to launch an expected presidential bid this week.
The feud started after Disney, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed the state 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 self-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 stripping 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, and it landed in Walker’s court. 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.
The creation of Disney’s self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was instrumental in the company’s decision in the 1960s to build near Orlando. Disney told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy. The futuristic city never materialized, however, and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.
By Mike Schneider