Governor Ron DeSantis has requested the disqualification of a federal judge from the First Amendment lawsuit brought by Disney against him and his appointees. The governor’s attorney filed a motion in federal court in Tallahassee, claiming that Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s prior statements in unrelated cases have raised doubts about his impartiality regarding the state’s efforts to take control of Disney World’s governing body.
The lawsuit filed by Disney alleges that DeSantis and his appointees violated the company’s right to free speech and the contracts clause by assuming control of the special governing district that was previously under Disney’s influence. This action was taken after Disney opposed Florida legislation referred to as “Don’t Say Gay,” which drew criticism.
DeSantis filed the motion to disqualify Judge Walker one day after Disney announced the cancellation of plans to construct a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California. According to Disney, the cancellation was a result of an ongoing dispute between Disney and DeSantis.
DeSantis’ motion argues that Judge Walker referred to the ongoing conflict between the governor’s administration and Disney during hearings related to two unrelated lawsuits involving free speech issues and concerns about retaliation for violating new laws supported by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. One of these cases involved a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Florida professors challenging a law that established a survey on “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses. Judge Walker dismissed the lawsuit because the professors lacked standing to challenge the law promoted by DeSantis and Florida lawmakers.
During the first case, Judge Walker questioned whether any evidence suggested that Disney’s special status was being revoked due to its “woke” stance. In the second case, the judge remarked that Disney could potentially lose its status because of a statement that went against the controlling party’s state policy, as stated in DeSantis’ motion.
The dispute between Disney and DeSantis has been ongoing for over a year and has drawn criticism for the governor, particularly as he prepares for a potential presidential bid. The conflict began when Disney publicly opposed the state’s approach to teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, which critics referred to as “Don’t Say Gay.” In response, DeSantis used legislation to assume control of Disney World’s self-governing district and appointed a new board of supervisors.
Disney then signed agreements with the old board that restricted the authority of the new supervisors in terms of design and construction. The Florida Legislature, under Republican control, passed a law allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal those agreements and subjected the theme park’s monorail system to state inspection instead of in-house inspections.
Disney filed a First Amendment lawsuit against DeSantis and the Disney-appointed board, which landed in Judge Walker’s court. Additionally, Central Florida Tourism Oversight District filed a lawsuit in state court in Orlando seeking to invalidate the agreements Disney made with the previous board.
The establishment of Disney’s self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was a crucial factor in the company’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s. However, the envisioned futuristic city never materialized and instead transformed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.