UPDATE, 5:20 PM: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis today won a victory in his legal skirmishes with the Walt Disney Company — but not for the reasons he wanted to.
The 2024 GOP White House contender had sought to have the federal judge in Disney “retaliation” lawsuit against DeSantis disqualified for bias. And today, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker did disqualify himself from the matter. However, Walker’s self-disqualification, so to speak, had nothing to do with allegations that he could have discriminated against DeSantis’ attacks on Disney being a so-called “woke” company.
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The judge, who has ruled on other DeSantis-related matters in the past, recused himself because a family member owns a mere 30 shares in the Mouse House. Judge Walker said that regardless of “the amount of the investment,” this financial turn of events could leave the impression of a lack of objectivity on his part that could affect “the outcome of this case” (read it here).
“Even though I believe it is highly unlikely that these proceedings will have a substantial effect on the Walt Disney Company, I choose to err on the side of caution, which here is also the side of judicial integrity, and disqualify myself,” Judge Walker wrote Thursday, noting how the case could impact Disney’s share prices.
“Maintaining public trust in the judiciary is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our republic,” he added with a swipe or two at DeSantis’ “meritless motion” and “judge shopping.”
Judge Walker will be replaced in the Disney v. DeSantis case by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed by DeSantis’ GOP rival and former mentor Donald Trump.
Of course, this isn’t the only legal skirmish between Disney and DeSantis, with the parties also squaring off in state court in a countersuit filed by the DeSantis-appointed board of the Disney World area. It also is worth noting on this first day of Pride Month that this all started last year when the then-Bob Chapek-led Disney eventually voiced it opposition to DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay.”
PREVIOUSLY, May 29: Having seen his 2024 White House bid embarrassingly misfire on the launch pad last week, Ron DeSantis is once again being mocked by both the Walt Disney Company and Donald Trump for his luckless battle with the Mouse House.
“Defendants’ motion to disqualify is premised on a misapprehension of the law and a misstatement of the facts,” state Disney lawyers (read it here) of the Florida Governor’s attempt to toss the federal judge in the Bob Iger-run company’s “retaliation” suit against DeSantis.
Disney responded on May 25 to the May 19 motion by the Sunshine State’s Attorney General to have Chief Judge Mark E. Walker removed from the matter for his so-called bias against DeSantis and his appointees about “political rhetoric directed at ‘woke’ ideology, calling ‘woke’ the ‘boogeyman of the day.’”
Citing “the Court’s lengthy record of consistent fairness and objectivity,” Disney’s Daniel Petrocelli-led league of lawyers slam the DeSantis administration for cherry picking Judge Walker’s comment and taking legal precedent out of context:
Defendants …base their motion on two year-old hypothetical questions during prior judicial proceedings where the Court accurately referred to widely-publicized statements from Florida legislators about their intent to change the governing structure of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (“RCID”) specifically because Disney expressed a political viewpoint disfavored by the legislators. The Court did not make any findings about those statements, but simply invoked them during oral arguments as examples to test arguments being advanced by counsel addressing different issues under different factual records.
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. Disqualification is allowed only if the prior comments expose an incapacity on the judge’s part to consider the new case on its own merits. The comments here come nowhere close to that standard.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said that their response would be via legal filings. The judge referenced the Disney matter in unrelated proceedings having to do with free speech litigation. DeSantis’ legal team contends that the judge’s remarks “create significant doubts” about his impartiality.
First the Governor saw a sudden resignation on May 27 from the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District’s Board of Supervisors that he stacked earlier this year to snatch control of the area around Disney World back from the Mouse House. The as-yet unexplained exit of GOP loyalist and Disney lawsuit co-defendant Michael Sasso from the Special District overseeing group previously known for over 50 years as Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District came comes five days after DeSantis appointed his spouse Meredith Sasso to Florida’s Supreme Court.
Months after DeSantis turned he displeasure on Disney for the corporation’s fumbling opposition in 2022 to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, the Magic Kingdom belted DeSantis, Sasso and others on April 25 with a stinging suit. Following up on comments Iger had already made publicly, the company claimed its First Amendment and other constitutional rights had been violated in retaliation for disapproval to the state’s discriminatory parental rights legislation.
As the battle between the MAGA-pandering DeSantis and Disney has escalated with countersuits, more hostile words and the Mouse House pulled the plug on a multi-billion construction and employee relocation project, the former Celebrity Apprentice host has turned up his already considerable volume in the matter. Whereas previously GOP nomination frontrunner Trump has ridiculed his one-time protégé for the Disney dust-up, yesterday the ex-POTUS turned his wrath on the company itself as well.
Taking to his Truth Social platform on Sunday, Trump declared that Disney is a “Woke and Disgusting shadow of its former self.” Sidestepping specifics as usual, Trump then went on to rant that Disney will suffer “irreparable damage” if the company doesn’t “go back to what it once was.”
Still, now a Trump target, Disney may take some comfort that the consistently inconsistent former president’s real prey remains the “publicity” seeking DeSantis. As Trump said on May 29: “This all happened during the Governorship of ‘Rob’ DeSanctimonious.”
On that, Trump and Disney still agree.
Ted Johnson contributed to this report.
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