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The Obama-appointed judge who was overseeing Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recused himself on Thursday over a relative’s ownership of 30 shares of Disney stock.
The case was transferred to Judge Allen C. Winsor, an appointee of President Trump who previously upheld the state’s Parental Rights in Education law. That law, known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, is at the center of the Disney-DeSantis controversy.
Disney sued DeSantis in April, alleging that the state had engaged in a campaign of retaliation against the company over its opposition to the bill. The state rescinded Disney’s special governing district in Orlando, and then reconstituted it under the control of five DeSantis appointees.
Disney has argued that the state has sought to punish the company for protected speech, and is seeking to overturn the state’s actions.
The lawsuit was initially assigned to Judge Mark E. Walker, whom President Obama appointed to the bench in 2012.
DeSantis’ lawyers sought to have Walker removed on the grounds that his previous comments in other cases show he might be biased against the governor. In one case, the judge noted that Disney might lose its special status because, “arguably,” it “ran afoul of state policy.”
Disney’s lawyers, led by Daniel Petrocelli, argued that was not nearly enough to merit disqualification.
Walker agreed with Disney and denied the DeSantis motion on Thursday, saying it was “wholly without merit.”
“In fact, I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping,” he wrote. “Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district.”
However, Walker also noted that his relative owns Disney stock, and that he therefore has an ethical duty to step aside.
The case will instead go to Winsor, who previously served as Florida’s solicitor general. In that role, he defended the state’s law outlawing same-sex marriage in 2014.
In February, Winsor dismissed a lawsuit from students and parents who alleged that the Parental Rights in Education law had caused schools to remove books with LGBTQ themes from libraries and to remove LGBTQ lyrics from school musicals.
That lawsuit was brought by Roberta Kaplan, who won a landmark gay rights case at the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. v. Windsor, in 2013. In the Florida case, she argued that the law violated the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause, as well as Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education.
Winsor dismissed the suit twice, ruling both times that the plaintiffs had not shown that they suffered enough harm to warrant standing in federal court.
“Plaintiffs have shown a strident disagreement with the new law, and they have alleged facts to show its very existence causes them deep hurt and disappointment,” Winsor wrote. “But to invoke a federal court’s jurisdiction, they must allege more. Their failure to do so requires dismissal.”
Walker, the Obama-appointed judge, had previously ruled against DeSantis in high-profile cases. In November, he blocked a law against “woke” ideology from taking effect at state universities.
Walker also struck down state voting restrictions last year, finding that the state had a “horrendous history of racial discrimination in voting.” DeSantis called the ruling “performative partisanship” and appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed Walker’s ruling earlier this year.