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The Barack Obama-appointed federal judge that Gov. Ron DeSantis did not want presiding over blockbuster Disney litigation has stepped aside from the case, but not because of the motion to disqualify recently filed by the Florida Republican’s team of private lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker made that point clear time and again in a 14-page order Thursday that was both a critique of DeSantis’ “meritless” motion to disqualify and other motions like it in the Northern District of Florida. In May, the governor’s lawyers, both in the Florida Attorney General’s Office and in private practice, asserted that Walker should not handle the case due to alleged biases and past adverse rulings against the governor’s supported policies.
Walker’s remarks from the bench in those other cases, DeSantis argued, “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.”
Judge Walker turned the tables by rejecting the assertions made in the motion to disqualify, which he chalked up as increasingly common but nonetheless “rank judge-shopping.”
“Defendants’ motion cites cases for their convenient language without acknowledging the chasm between my statements in this case and the conduct at issue in those cases. Without exploring all the other defects in the motion, for the reasons noted above and as thoughtfully outlined in Plaintiff’s response, Defendants’ motion is wholly without merit,” Walker wrote. “In fact, I find the motion is nothing more than rank judge-shopping. Sadly, this practice has become all too common in this district.”
While rejecting the motion put together by DeSantis’ conservative legal all-stars, Walker acknowledged they “did get one thing right.” The judge proceeded to make a point about judicial ethics, at a time when supreme attention is being paid to the subject. Walker revealed that a “third degree” relative’s 30 shares of Disney stock were the reason he had to consider recusing himself.
“Although Defendant’s motion to disqualify is without merit, I must consider a separate question of whether I should disqualify myself. 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,” Walker wrote. “Upon learning this information, I became obligated to engage in a separate inquiry pursuant to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges to determine if the financial interest of my third-degree relative ‘could be substantially affected by the outcome of [this] proceeding.””
Walker, with an eye towards the big picture and a need for public trust in the judiciary, concluded that the totality of the circumstances warranted recusal.
“Given the ambiguous standard I must apply under Canon 3C(1)(d)(iii), as well the number of unknown variables present in this case, I cannot say for sure that the outcome of these proceedings could not substantially affect the value of my family member’s financial interest in The Walt Disney Company, Plaintiff’s parent corporation,” he wrote. “Even though I believe it is highly unlikely that these proceedings will have a substantial effect on The Walt Disney Company, I choose to err on the side of caution—which, here, is also the side of judicial integrity—and disqualify myself. Maintaining public trust in the judiciary is paramount, perhaps now more than ever in the history of our Republic.”
“I am confident that my colleagues on this Court can preside over the remainder of this case and judge it fairly and wisely,” Walker added.
In one part of the order, Walker cited to another case in which a fellow judge on the court rejected another “meritless” motion to disqualify, and that was in a redistricting case. That fellow jurist, Judge Allen C. Winsor, a Donald Trump appointee, has been assigned to handle the Disney case in Walker’s stead.
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