On Saturday, May 20, 2023, Politico reported that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker removed from the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Disney against him. DeSantis claims the judge’s previous statements in other cases cast doubt on his impartiality regarding the state’s attempt to control Disney World’s governing body.

DeSantis’ lawyer filed a motion in federal court to disqualify Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker from overseeing the lawsuit. The lawsuit accuses DeSantis and his appointees of violating Disney’s free speech rights and contracts clause by taking over the special governing district previously controlled by Disney supporters, after Disney opposed a controversial Florida legislation known as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Following Disney’s decision to cancel its plans for a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California, DeSantis filed a motion seeking the disqualification of Judge Walker from overseeing the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Disney against DeSantis.

DeSantis argued that Judge Walker’s previous references to the ongoing dispute between his administration and Disney during hearings for unrelated lawsuits, which dealt with free speech issues and concerns over retaliation for violating new laws supported by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, raised doubts about the judge’s impartiality. One of these lawsuits involved Florida professors challenging a law that mandated a survey on “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at state campuses.

Judge Mark Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama and currently serves as the chief judge of the district, dismissed the professors’ lawsuit in the aforementioned case. The dismissal was based on the reasoning that the professors lacked the legal standing to challenge the law supported by Governor DeSantis and Florida lawmakers.

During the proceedings of the first case, Judge Walker questioned whether there was any evidence indicating that Disney’s special status would be revoked due to its progressive stance. In the second case, the judge suggested that Disney might potentially lose its status because its statement contradicted the state policy of the governing party, as stated in DeSantis’ motion.

For over a year, Disney and DeSantis have been embroiled in a prolonged conflict, casting a shadow over the GOP governor as he prepares for an anticipated presidential bid in the upcoming week.

The dispute began when Disney publicly voiced its opposition to the state’s stance on teaching topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity in the early grades, which critics referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” policy.

In response, DeSantis implemented legislation that granted him control over Disney World’s autonomous governing district. He subsequently appointed a new board of supervisors. However, prior to the installation of the new board, Disney entered into agreements with the previous board, effectively removing the new supervisors’ authority over design and construction matters.

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature enacted legislation granting the DeSantis-appointed board the authority to revoke those agreements. Furthermore, the legislation mandated that the theme park resort’s monorail system be subject to state inspection, replacing the previous practice of internal inspections.

Disney initiated legal action by filing a First Amendment lawsuit against Governor DeSantis and the Disney-appointed board in a federal court located in Tallahassee. This consequential legal dispute was assigned to Judge Walker’s courtroom. Additionally, the Disney-appointed board pursued legal recourse by filing a separate lawsuit against Disney in state court in Orlando, seeking to nullify the agreements forged with the previous board.

The establishment of Disney’s self-governing district, facilitated by the Florida Legislature, played a crucial role in Disney’s choice to establish its presence near Orlando during the 1960s. At that time, Disney communicated to the state its intention to construct a visionary city encompassing advancements in urban planning and featuring a comprehensive transit system. This vision necessitated a level of autonomy for the company. However, the envisioned futuristic city never came to fruition and ultimately transformed into a second theme park that was inaugurated in 1982.


 Source: Politico