Judge denies DeSantis bid to disqualify him from Disney case, but recuses himself anyway because his relative owns company’s stock

The federal judge who is overseeing Disney’s civil lawsuit for free speech against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recused from the case on Thursday after learning that a relative of his own has stock in The Walt Disney Company

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According to the court docket, Allen Winsor will take over the case, a former president Donald Trump’s appointee. Trump will be running against DeSantis in the Republican presidential primary of 2024.

Judge Mark Walker decided to withdraw himself from the case, despite DeSantis’ request that he be disqualified. The governor’s attorneys and those of the other defendants claimed that Walker’s comments in separate lawsuits raised questions about his impartiality.

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Walker, appointed by the ex-President Barack Obama to the bench, called the argument of the Florida governor “meritless” in a court document filed in United States District Court, Tallahassee. He nevertheless concluded that he had to disqualify himself for reasons “unrelated to the Defendants meritless motion.”

Walker stated that he discovered on Friday “that a relative in the third degree owns thirty stock shares” of Disney’s parent company. The judge stated that he conducted an investigation into the matter, and “determined in the end that disqualification is necessary under these circumstances.”

Third-degree relatives are great-grandparents or great-grandchildren, as well as great aunts and uncles.

Disney shares closed Thursday at $88.59. At that price, 30 shares equal about $2,658.

Walker, however, said that the size of the financial interest of a third-degree relative is irrelevant under the code of conduct to which he adheres.

Walker wrote that even if the relative only owned one share of stock, it is “clear” that the impact of the relative’s third-degree investment — and not the amount invested — determines disqualification.

The judge stated that Disney’s claims make it clear that the case “involves substantial economic interests for its mother corporation, in which I have a third-degree relative who owns stock.”

Disney claims that DeSantis has led a campaign of political retaliation against it after the company publicly denounced a controversial classroom bill critics have called “Don’t Say Gay.” This retaliation includes DeSantis’ and his allies’ targeting Walt Disney World’s Special Tax District and its recent developments deals. Disney’s business is threatened, according to the company.

Walker wrote: “Even though it’s highly unlikely that this case will have any significant impact on The Walt Disney Company… I chose to err cautiously — which is, in this instance, also the side judicial integrity — by disqualifying myself.”

The judge stated that “Maintaining the public’s trust in the judiciary, is paramount. Perhaps now more than any time in our history,”

DeSantis’ feud with Disney, Florida’s largest employer, has been raging for years. The latest twist is Walker.

In April 2022, after Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the Classroom Bill and promised to help repeal it in the weeks that followed, the Republican majority Florida Legislature voted to dissolve a special tax district which had allowed Disney to effectively self govern its Florida operations from the 1960s.

DeSantis replaced the district’s board with DeSantis-selected members.

Disney sued after the board voted against the development agreements the company had made shortly before it took over. The board countersued state court. Disney has requested that the case be dismissed.