DeSantis moves to disqualify judge in Disney lawsuit over Florida tax district

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives remarks at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Maryland.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved Friday to disqualify the federal judge overseeing Disney‘s political retaliation lawsuit, alleging the judge’s comments in previous cases raise doubts about his impartiality.

Judge Mark Walker had in two separate cases “offered ‘Disney’ as an example of state retaliation” without being prompted, lawyers for DeSantis said in a court filing.

Those remarks “could reasonably imply that the Court has prejudged the retaliation question” in Disney’s case, they argued. That’s because Disney’s lawsuit alleges that DeSantis led a campaign of political retribution against the company after it criticized his controversial classroom bill, labeled “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.

“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,” DeSantis’ legal team wrote.

A Disney spokesman did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Disney filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Florida, after the company’s development deals were nullified by a board of supervisors that DeSantis had picked to oversee the district that includes Walt Disney World. The board claimed Disney had struck the deals to thwart its power, but the entertainment giant says they were crafted to secure future investments in its Florida parks.

DeSantis had replaced the board with his preferred picks after he and his allies targeted Disney’s special tax district. The focus on the district, which had been in place since the 1960s, began just weeks after then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticized the classroom bill.

DeSantis’ legal team pointed to Walker’s remarks from the past year in two separate court hearings as evidence to support his recusal.

In an April 1, 2022, hearing, Walker had asked, “is there anything in the record that says we are now going to take away Disney’s special status because they’re woke?”

In doing so, the judge had “used the State’s contemplated dissolution of Disney’s special district as an example of retaliatory conduct,” DeSantis’ lawyers argued.

The other alleged example came in a June 21, 2022, hearing in a case accusing DeSantis of chilling speech in schools. Walker had suggested in that hearing that Florida’s moves against Disney were punitive actions, when he said that the company was going to lose its special status because it made a statement that arguably “ran afoul of state policy of the controlling party.”

The lawyers for DeSantis argued that Walker’s “unprompted suggestion, on two separate occasions, that the State punished Disney by eliminating its ‘special status’ gives an appearance of partiality.”

“The Court’s comments seemingly reflect its opinion on whether the State punished Disney’s speech by revoking Disney’s ‘special status,'” they wrote.

A spokesman for the board, whose members are also named as defendants in Disney’s lawsuit, declined to comment on the latest court filing.

DeSantis battles Disney – and Trump

The feud between DeSantis and one of his state’s top employers has gone on for more than a year. The two sides have only grown more entrenched as the governor gears up to launch his expected 2024 presidential campaign next week.

DeSantis has made a name for himself by engaging in divisive culture-war battles, including his fight against Disney, which the governor has slammed as a “Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism.”

But his drawn-out clash with the House of Mouse has exposed him to criticism from even some Republicans — and especially former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly ripped DeSantis.

After Disney announced on Thursday that it has abandoned plans to open up a new employee campus in Lake Nona, Florida, located 20 miles from Walt Disney World Resort, Trump crowed on social media that DeSantis was getting “destroyed.”

Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parks, experiences and products division, cited “changing business conditions” and the return of CEO Bob Iger as reasons for the cancellation. Additionally, the company will no longer be asking more than 2,000 California-based employees to relocate to Florida.

D’Amaro reiterated in his memo that the company still plans to invest $17 billion in Florida over the next 10 years, including the addition of around 13,000 jobs. The company currently employs more than 75,000 people in the state.

Disney declined to provide specific updates on that investment, but has previously announced plans to update park attractions, expand existing parks and add more cruise ships to its fleet in Florida.

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