- Gov. Ron DeSantis’s legal team has filed a motion to disqualify Chief Judge Mark E. Walker from presiding over Disney’s lawsuit against the governor.
- The motion argues that Walker’s previous remarks mentioning Disney as an example of state retaliation could imply that the judge has already formed an opinion about the case.
- The filing cites two previous cases where the court discussed the potential dissolution of Disney’s special district as an instance of retaliatory conduct and the possibility of reduced funding for schools violating certain laws.
- The Walt Disney Company filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis in April, claiming “governmental retaliation” after the state gained control of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District.
The legal team of Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a motion on Friday that if granted, would see Chief Judge Mark E. Walker disqualified to preside over Disney’s lawsuit against the governor.
The defendants argue that Walker made two previous remarks in unrelated cases where he mentioned Disney as an example of state retaliation. The remarks, according to the motion, were made in open court and were based on information from outside of the courtroom and the defendants believe that these remarks could imply that the judge has already formed an opinion about retaliation in the case.
“Those remarks—each derived from extrajudicial sources—were on the record, in open court, and could reasonably imply that the Court has prejudged the retaliation question here,” reads the filing. “Because that question is now before this Court, and because that question involves highly publicized matters of great interest to Florida’s citizens, the Court should disqualify itself to prevent even the appearance of impropriety.”
The filing, which was provided to The Capitolist by the Office of the Governor, cites two previous cases — Link v. Corcoran and Falls v. DeSantis — in which the former consisted of the court discussing whether the plaintiffs had a reasonable fear of First Amendment retaliation. During the hearing, the court used the example of the potential dissolution of Disney’s special district as an instance of retaliatory conduct.
The court questioned whether there was evidence in the record to support the plaintiffs’ fears, such as any statements or actions by the defendants indicating they would take punitive measures against those they described as “woke.” This discussion took place concurrent with public discussions about dissolving Disney’s special district, and the governor publicly denied that it would be retaliatory.
In the Falls v. DeSantis case, the plaintiffs also sought a preliminary injunction, claiming that state-level defendants would take enforcement action against their schools if they expressed opinions violating the Individual Freedom Act (IFA), chilling their speech.
During the preliminary injunction hearing, the court discussed the potential chilling effect of the state’s enforcement actions, explicitly mentioning the possibility of reduced funding for schools that violated the IFA, similar to the funding cuts imposed on school districts for implementing mask mandates during the pandemic. The court questioned whether the numerous examples of punitive actions, including Disney potentially losing its status, indicated a pattern where retaliation was no longer speculative but a real possibility.
“Days before Disney filed suit, this Court in a written order expressed (in the Link case) its views about political rhetoric directed at “woke” ideology, calling “woke” the boogeyman of the day,” the filing states.
Upon making contact with DeSantis Spokesperson Jeremy Redfern, he stated that the timeframe in which a decision can be made on the motion is at the discretion of the courts, and was unable to comment further.
The Walt Disney Company announced last month that it filed a 77-page federal lawsuit against DeSantis on the grounds that he engaged in “governmental retaliation” when the state gained control of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).
The suit serves as the most recent development in an ongoing dispute dating back to last year over control of RCID. Tensions arose as DeSantis directed his attention towards the district — which grants Disney special administrative authority over its parks and resorts — after the company publicly opposed a bill that limits the teaching of topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
DeSantis signed legislation earlier this year that stripped Disney’s control of Reedy Creek, officially renaming it as the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” and granting the governor the power to appoint its Board of Supervisors.
The supervisors — Sarasota school board member Bridget Ziegler, Attorney Brian Aungst, Jr., Seminole County Bar Association President Mike Sasso, CEO of The Gathering USA Ron Peri, and attorney Martin Garcia — all appear in the lawsuit alongside DeSantis.
“There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so,” reads the legal action. “This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see.”
Late last month, state officials announced that in the days leading up to RCID’s transition to state control, attorneys working for Disney brokered last-minute contract agreements allowing the company to retain developmental power over the area, vowing to “void” any agreed-upon contracts.
The new state-controlled board notified the DeSantis administration that the outgoing Disney-controlled members signed a thirty-year agreement that allows Disney to retain major control of the authority over public lands, land-use agreements, and various operational responsibilities.
Following the discovery, the governor proposed privatizing the utility services of the district to “improve operational efficiency,” as well as emphasizing that the state will retain authority over the utilization of undeveloped land within the district, quipping it could potentially convert such land into a new state prison.
“At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to “void” publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” reads the lawsuit. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
In response to Disney’s filing, which took place moments after the DeSantis-appointed Board of Supervisors voted to nullify any developmental agreements, the Office of the Governor maintained that they were within their legal rights to enact a takeover of the special district.
“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” said Communications Director for the Executive Office of Governor Taryn Fenske in an emailed statement to The Capitolist. “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”