Disney rips DeSantis bid to disqualify judge in free speech lawsuit


In this article

Chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Disney urged a federal court to reject a request by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to disqualify the judge overseeing the company's lawsuit accusing the governor and his allies of political retaliation.

Attorneys for DeSantis had argued that Judge Mark Walker should recuse himself from the lawsuit over his comments in two separate cases that referenced the clash between the governor and the entertainment giant.

Disney — which has been feuding with DeSantis since last year, when the company came out against his bill that critics have labeled "Don't Say Gay" — responded that the defendants' argument failed to meet the legal standard for disqualification.

"Judges are not prohibited from referring accurately to widely-reported news events during oral arguments, nor must they disqualify themselves if cases related to those events happen to come before them months later," Disney's lawyers argued in a court filing Thursday.

"Disqualification is allowed only if the prior comments expose an incapacity on the judge's part to consider the new case on its own merits," the lawyers wrote, adding that the judge's comments in question "come nowhere close to that standard."

Disney's lawsuit alleges that DeSantis "orchestrated at every step" a campaign to punish the company for speaking out against a Florida bill limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. That alleged scheme now threatens the company's business, Disney alleges.

"The case that we filed last month made our position and the facts very clear," Disney CEO Bob Iger said during the company's earnings call earlier this month. "And that's really that this is about one thing and one thing only and that's retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation."

The effort to remove Walker as the judge in Disney's civil case in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Florida, came days before DeSantis launched his 2024 presidential campaign. The governor, who is seen as former President Donald Trump's main competition for the GOP nomination, has gained a national profile for engaging in numerous political battles.

The long-running fight between the ambitious politician and one of his state's top employers spilled into the courts after the governor's handpicked officials voted to cancel Disney's development deals for its Orlando-area parks.

Disney filed its suit in late April after the new board of its special district voted to undo development contracts that the company said it struck to secure its investments. The company has since updated that lawsuit to include newly passed legislation targeting its monorail system as further evidence of retaliation by the governor.

DeSantis' next volley was to move to have Walker replaced. Walker was nominated to serve as judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama.

In 2018, Walker ruled against the state and ordered then-Governor Rick Scott to restore voting rights of felons after their release from prison.

That same year, he ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to continue providing a transgender woman prisoner with hormone treatment and to provide her with women's undergarments and grooming products. The prisoner, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, was housed in a male-only correctional facility.

Representatives for DeSantis did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.