Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida asked a federal judge on Friday to step down from a case brought by Disney, saying his comments in two unrelated court proceedings last year displayed a bias toward the company.
John Guard, the Florida chief deputy attorney general, made the request to Mark E. Walker, the chief judge for the Northern District of Florida, on behalf of Mr. DeSantis. Judge Walker is presiding over the early stages of a Disney lawsuit, filed last month, that accused Mr. DeSantis and a board that oversees government services at Walt Disney World of engaging in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
In their motion to disqualify Judge Walker, Mr. Guard and lawyers for the five members of the board said two remarks from last year “could reasonably be understood to reflect that the court has prejudged Disney’s retaliation theory here, and therefore create significant doubts about the court’s impartiality.”
In both instances, Judge Walker brought up Disney in hearings for unrelated cases, briefly citing actions by Mr. DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature against the company as examples of retaliatory conduct, according to the filing. Judge Walker made one of the remarks, at a hearing in a case involving intellectual freedom on college campuses, a day after Mr. DeSantis “publicly refuted” the notion that he was taking “retaliatory” action against Disney, the filing said.
The second remark was made in June at a preliminary injunction hearing involving Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which limits discussion of “white man’s privilege” and other racial bias issues during diversity training offered by private employers. According to the filing, Judge Walker cited what was going on between Mr. DeSantis and Disney as an example of a pattern of “punitive actions.”
In August, Judge Walker made national headlines for blocking parts of the act, which is officially called the Individual Freedom Act and was championed by Mr. DeSantis.
A spokesman for Disney declined to comment. Judge Walker, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Mr. DeSantis and Disney have been sparring for more than a year over a special tax district that encompasses Disney World. The fight started when the company criticized a Florida education law that opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay” because it limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation — angering Mr. DeSantis, who repeatedly vowed payback.
Since then, Florida legislators, at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, have targeted Disney — the state’s largest taxpayer — with a variety of hostile measures. In February, they gave Mr. DeSantis control over government services at Disney World, ending the company’s long-held ability to self-govern its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county.
The board members appointed by Mr. DeSantis soon discovered that a previous, Disney-controlled board had approved development contracts that lock in a growth plan for the resort. An effort to void those agreements has resulted in dueling lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and his allies in federal court and the governor’s tax district appointees returning fire in state court.
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