Judge presiding over Disney vs. DeSantis lawsuit disqualifies himself from case over relative's stock in company

June 2, 2023
Ben Marquis

In April, Disney filed a lawsuit against Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and in May, DeSantis filed a motion to disqualify the judge presiding over the case for alleged bias.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker denied the motion to disqualify filed by DeSantis but then went ahead and disqualified himself anyway due to the fact that one of his relatives held stock in the Disney company, the Washington Examiner reported.

It was, in effect, both a loss and a win for the Florida governor at the same time, as his motion had been rejected but there nonetheless will be a new judge presiding over the case going forward.

DeSantis asked for the judge to be disqualified

The Associated Press reported on May 20 that Gov. DeSantis had filed a motion to disqualify Judge Walker and have him removed from the lawsuit filed against him specifically by Disney over alleged free speech and government retaliation issues.

That motion noted that Walker had made reference to the ongoing feud between Disney and Florida in at least two unrelated cases and called into question the judge's ability to be impartial and unbiased.

Fast-forward to Thursday, when the judge went ahead and disqualified himself for his own personal reasons while rejecting the motion from DeSantis but, in the process, seemingly proved that the governor was correct in calling for his removal for an inability to remain impartial and unbiased.

Judge disqualified himself

In a 14-page order, Judge Walker wrote that, without having held any hearings, he had decided to deny the motion to disqualify filed by Gov. DeSantis, which he repeatedly stated was "without merit," but still felt the need to disqualify himself for separate reasons.

He first explained why he had chosen to reject the "meritless motion" from DeSantis and essentially accused the governor of having cherry-picked the judge's remarks without additional context as well as engaging in "rank judge-shopping," but then noted, "However, Defendants did get one thing right. That is, if a judge has doubts over whether disqualification is required, he should resolve those doubts in favor of disqualification."

"Although Defendant’s motion to disqualify is without merit, I must consider a separate question of whether I should disqualify myself," Walker wrote. "On Friday, May 26, 2023, I learned, and later confirmed, that a relative within the third degree of relationship owns thirty shares of stock in Plaintiff’s parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company."

He would go on at length to discuss the applicable Code of Conduct for federal judges and how he should remove himself from the case due to the possibility, however slight it may be, that his eventual ruling in whichever direction could have a "substantial" impact on the value of the Disney stock held by his relative.

Obama judge replaced by Trump judge

In conclusion, Judge Walker wrote, "As set out above, Defendant’s motion to disqualify me is without merit. Nevertheless, based on Canon 3C(1)(d)(iii), and the guidance provided by the Committee on Codes of Conduct, and the facts of this case, I must disqualify myself, because a relative within the third degree owns stock in Plaintiff’s parent corporation, which could be substantially affected by the outcome of this case."

"I am confident that my colleagues on this Court can preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely," he added.

Interestingly enough, though Gov. DeSantis "lost" in the sense that his motion was denied, he actually possibly won twice, first by way of the removal of the sitting judge but also via who the replacement judge will be in the case.

According to the Examiner, following the disqualification of Judge Walker, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2012, the case has been reassigned to Judge Allen Windsor, who was nominated to the court by former President Donald Trump in 2019, and presumably would have a more neutral or favorable view toward the dispute at hand than the prior judge.

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