DeSantis wants Disney lawsuit judge disqualified

DeSantis wants Disney lawsuit judge disqualified

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addresses the Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday moved to disqualify the federal judge in charge of oversight DisneyThe political retaliation lawsuit alleges that the judge’s comments in previous cases cast doubt on his impartiality.

Judge Mark Walker “cited Disney as an example of state retaliation” in two separate cases without being asked to do so, attorneys for DeSantis said in a court filing.

These comments “might reasonably indicate that the court has pre-judged the issue of retaliation in the Disney case,” they argued. That’s because Disney’s lawsuit alleges that DeSantis launched a political retaliation campaign against the company after it criticized its controversial classroom bill, which critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

“Because this question is now before this court, and because this question is a highly publicized matter of significant concern to Florida citizens, the court should disqualify itself to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” wrote the DeSantis legal team.

A Disney spokesman did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Disney filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Fla., after the company’s development contracts were voided by a board of directors selected by DeSantis to oversee the district that includes Walt Disney World. The board claimed Disney made the deals to erode its power, but the entertainment giant says they are designed to secure future investment in its Florida parks.

DeSantis had replaced the plaque with his favorite picks after he and his allies targeted Disney’s special tax district. The county’s focus since the 1960s began just weeks after then-Disney boss Bob Chapek criticized the classroom law.

The DeSantis legal team referred to Walker’s statements from last year in two separate court hearings as evidence of his denial.

At a hearing on April 1, 2022, Walker had asked, “Is there anything on record that says we’re going to revoke Disney’s special status now because they woke up?”

In doing so, the judge “used the planned dissolution of the Disney Special District by the state as an example of retaliatory measures,” argued DeSantis’ lawyers.

The other alleged example came at a June 21, 2022 hearing in a case alleging DeSantis made chilling speeches in schools. Walker had implied in that hearing that Florida’s actions against Disney were punitive when he said the company would lose its special status for making a statement that appears “contrary to state policy of the controlling party.”

DeSantis’ attorneys argued that Walker’s “unsolicited implication on two separate occasions that the State is punishing Disney by removing its ‘special status’ creates the appearance of partiality.”

“The court’s comments appear to reflect its opinion on whether the state punished Disney’s speech by stripping Disney of ‘special status,'” they wrote.

A spokesman for the board of directors, whose members are also named as defendants in Disney’s lawsuit, declined to comment on the recent court filings.

DeSantis is fighting against Disney – and Trump

The feud between DeSantis and one of his state’s top employers has lasted for more than a year. The two sides have only grown closer as the governor prepares to launch his anticipated 2024 presidential campaign next week.

DeSantis has made a name for himself by engaging in divisive culture wars, including his fight against Disney, which the governor described as a “magic kingdom of woke corporatism.”

But his protracted run-in with the House of Mouse has even drawn him to criticism from some Republicans — most notably former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly slammed DeSantis.

After Disney announced Thursday it had abandoned plans to open a new employee campus in Lake Nona, Fla., 20 miles from Walt Disney World Resort, Trump hailed on social media that DeSantis would be “destroyed.”

Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parks, experiences and products division, cited “changing business conditions” and the return of CEO Bob Iger as reasons for the cancellation. Additionally, the company will not ask more than 2,000 California-based employees to relocate to Florida.

D’Amaro reiterated in his memo that the company plans to continue investing $17 billion in Florida over the next decade, including creating about 13,000 jobs. The company currently employs more than 75,000 people in the country.

Disney declined to provide specific information on the investment, but has previously announced plans to upgrade park attractions, expand existing parks and add more cruise ships to its Florida fleet.