Disney opposes disqualification of judge overseeing lawsuit against Gov. DeSantis

The judge overseeing Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his appointees shouldn’t leave the case, the entertainment giant argued in a document filed Thursday. 

Attorneys for DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District last week asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to disqualify himself, pointing to comments he made in unrelated legal matters about the state retaliating against Disney. But lawyers for Disney argued Thursday that Walker’s remarks didn’t meet the high standards for judges to be disqualified. 

Court rules do "not prescribe the hair-trigger disqualification standard defendants suggest," the Disney lawyers wrote. 

Walker’s comments came as lawmakers last year moved to strip Disney of its special governing status through the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. In a motion last week, attorneys for DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District argued that Walker’s remarks gave "an appearance of partiality that would lead a reasonable observer to question whether the court is predisposed to ruling that the state retaliated against Disney." 

But Disney lawyers Thursday said a court rule about disqualification establishes a "high bar" to prevent parties from trying to "effectively veto judges whose decisions they do not like and shop for a judge more to their liking." 

Walker didn’t make any improper communication with the press or the public about Disney’s lawsuit, they argued. "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," Disney’s lawyers wrote. 

Walker on Tuesday issued an order saying he would take no further action until he ruled on the motion for disqualification. DeSantis and Disney began clashing after the company opposed a controversial 2022 law that restricts instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools — a law that supporters titled "Parental Rights in Education" but detractors called "don’t say gay." 

Legislators ultimately renamed the Reedy Creek district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and gave DeSantis the power to appoint its members. The lawsuit alleges, in part, that retribution orchestrated by the governor has economically harmed the company and violated its constitutional rights.