A federal judge in Florida overseeing Walt Disney Co.'s lawsuit against GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis recused himself Thursday, saying he has a relative who owns Disney stock and could be affected by the case's outcome.
In a filing in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Judge Mark E. Walker, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, responded to a motion by DeSantis' legal team requesting he remove himself from the case.
"Defendants seek to disqualify me from presiding over this case because, in their view, questions I have asked in previous, related cases raise substantial doubts about my impartiality," Walker wrote.
Walker, however, said the DeSantis team's motion was "based on a misapprehension of the law and a misstatement of the facts." The judge said the motion cited cases "for their convenient language without acknowledging the chasm between my statements in this case and the conduct at issue in those cases."
DeSantis' lawyers had argued in their motion that comments Walker made in a case on intellectual freedom on college campuses and on the Stop Woke Act, a 2022 law that restricts discussions of race, gender and inequality in business and education, suggested the governor's actions against Disney were retaliatory.
The motion, therefore, is "wholly without merit," Walker wrote in the filing Thursday.
"I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping. Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district," he said.
Walker, however, said that he had determined that he has to disqualify himself from the case because he learned last week "that a relative within the third degree of relationship owns thirty shares of stock in Plaintiff’s parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company." He said this could be "substantially affected by the outcome of this case."
The case has been reassigned to Judge Allen C. Winsor, who was nominated by President Donald Trump.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed the lawsuit against DeSantis in late April, alleging a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" after the company publicly opposed a state law that critics call "Don't Say Gay." The lawsuit stemmed from DeSantis' threat to revoke Walt Disney World's self-governing status.
DeSantis has been feuding with Disney, whose special taxing district, formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, had allowed the company to self-govern its operations at the Orlando-based parks for decades. DeSantis moved to take over the district’s operations earlier this year.