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Judge in Disney-DeSantis case steps down over family’s Disney stock

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The federal judge overseeing Walt Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has removed himself from the case — claiming that he has a conflict because a member of the family owns stock within the media giant.

Judge Mark E. Walker, the chief judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida, said he’ll not preside over the case because “a relative inside the third degree” — meaning it may very well be Walker’s great grandchildren, first cousin or great-aunt, for instance — owns 30 shares of the Mouse House.

The case will now go before Judge Allen Winsor, a Republican who was nominated to the bench in 2019 by DeSantis’ GOP rival President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think it likely that the end result of this litigation would substantially affect The Walt Disney Company’s share price,” Walker said within the late Thursday filing.

“I decide to err on the side of caution — which, here, can be the side of judicial integrity — and disqualify myself,” he added.

He insisted within the court documents that he made the choice to go away the case due to his “ethical obligations,” and never due to DeSantis’ efforts to disqualify him.

Judge Mark E. Walker has stepped down from presiding over Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis because a relative owns 30 shares in Mouse House stock.Tallahassee Democrat-USA TODAY NETWORK

DeSantis filed a motion on May 19 in Tallahassee federal court to remove Walker from the case, citing bias after the judge reportedly referred to the Disney-DeSantis lawsuit during hearings for other free speech cases.

“In truth, I find the motion is nothing greater than rank judge-shopping,” Walker, who President Barack Obama nominated to the federal bench in 2012 and is now chief of the district, added within the filing.

Walker previously ruled against DeSantis in 2022 — when he tossed a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Florida professors that challenged a latest law establishing a survey about “mental freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses.

Walker has been overseeing the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Disney against the Florida governor for the reason that theme park’s feud with DeSantis began in late April.

DeSantis' year-long feud with Disney started when the media company opposed the governor's DeSantis’ year-long feud with Disney began when the media company opposed the governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender for all public school students.Kyle Mazza/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

The lawsuit alleges that DeSantis and his appointees violated the corporate’s right to free speech, in addition to the contracts clause, after he dissolved the corporate’s longtime special tax district overseeing its Orlando-area theme parks.

The scrapped Reedy Creek District had previously been controlled by Disney supporters after Disney opposed Florida laws that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” which bans teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender for all public school students.

The district is now overseen by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which DeSantis has equipped with longtime allies that voted to adopt a code enforcement program where park attractions will likely be subject to fines of as much as $500 a day.

DeSantis — who announced his 2024 presidential candidacy on May 24 via a botched Twitter Spaces event — has publicly said there’s a “zero” probability the state will back down in its fight against Disney.

“They’re going to live under the identical laws as everybody else. They’re going to pay their fair proportion of taxes and so they’re not going to control themselves. We the individuals are going to control, and to place one corporation on a pedestal and allow them to be exempt from the laws isn’t good policy,” DeSantis said while chatting with a crowd of Recent Hampshire voters last month.

In retaliation, Disney pulled the plug on an almost $900 million development project in Florida that may have brought 2,000 high-paying jobs to the state.

DeSantis has scrapped Disney's Reedy Creek District -- a special tax district that oversees the Orlando-area theme parks -- and instead tapped the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to govern the parks.DeSantis has scrapped Disney’s Reedy Creek District — a special tax district that oversees the Orlando-area theme parks — and as a substitute tapped the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to control the parks.AFP via Getty Images

Employees were set to relocate from California to the Florida campus — positioned within the Lake Nona region about 20 miles from the Magic Kingdom — but were informed that the project was halted in an email from Josh D’Amaro, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts chairperson, last month.

The roles, some as Disney characters and “Imagineers,” had a mean salary of $120,000, in accordance with an estimate from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Disney currently employs greater than 75,000 people within the Orlando area.

“Does the state want us to take a position more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” Disney CEO Robert Iger said on an earnings-related conference call with analysts in mid-May.

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