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Ron DeSantis’ legal team of conservative all-stars tries to have Obama-appointed judge kicked off of Disney case


left: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis holds a press conference at the Reedy Creek Administration Building in Lake Buena Vista. DeSantis announced legislative action to nullify the agreement between the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Walt Disney World which was designed to permit Disney to retain control of its theme park and surrounding property. (Photo by Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa USA); Right: Disney’s Magic Kingdom Castle is shown. (screengrab via YouTube).

Represented by a team of private lawyers with deep ties in the Republican party, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) filed a motion Friday to remove the federal judge presiding over blockbuster Disney litigation, arguing that the Barack Obama-appointed jurist already showed his bias against the 2024 presidential election hopeful.

Tandem lawsuits

In late April, Disney sued DeSantis for violating its First Amendment rights by waging a “campaign of punishment” against the entertainment giant for its public opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act (a.k.a., the “Don’t Say Gay” law), which prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” Shortly after filing, Disney updated its lawsuit with remarks DeSantis made in public. Disney claimed that the governor openly admitted to political retaliation when he said: “First of all, this all started, of course, with our parents’ rights bill.”

Meanwhile, Disney also moved to dismiss a separate lawsuit, in which DeSantis sued Disney in an attempt to invalidate a contract between Disney executives and the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) which allowed Disney to maintain control over the self-governed district.

DeSantis looks to remove judge

DeSantis’ legal team, led by the Florida Attorney General’s Office and several high-powered private attorneys, filed a motion in the First Amendment lawsuit Friday asking that U.S. District Judge Mark Walker — a Barack Obama appointee — be disqualified from presiding over the case on the basis that Walker is biased against DeSantis. The basis for DeSantis’s allegation is that twice, in other cases unrelated to the two between Disney and DeSantis, Walker raised Disney as an example of “state retaliation.”

According to the filing, DeSantis argues that Walker’s remarks from the bench “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.” The motion includes transcripts from two other cases in which Walker raised Disney as an example during colloquy with attorneys.

Walker has a history of ruling against Florida Republicans in other lawsuits. For example, in 2021, Walker struck down the Sunshine State’s 2021 election law for being discriminatory. Walker also ruled against the “Stop WOKE Act” last August, writing that the statute was “bordering on unintelligible” and citing Netflix’s “Stranger Things” by calling Florida “a First Amendment upside down.”

Florida’s legal team of conservative all-stars

The well-connected group of conservative lawyers representing DeSantis include Paul Huck Jr., Alan Lawson, Jason Gonzalez, and Chuck Cooper.

Huck Jr., a Florida lawyer dubbed the “godfather of the Federalist Society in Miami” who once made it onto Donald Trump’s special master shortlist, is the son of Senior U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, a Bill Clinton appointee who served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida from 2000 until assuming senior status in 2010. Huck Jr. is also married to U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa of the 11th Circuit, a former Florida Supreme Court justice. Lagoa’s name was floated as a possible replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before then-President Trump ultimately nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Huck Jr. is also a partner at the law firm that represented Trump’s presidential campaign.

Attorney Alan Lawson retired last August as a justice on the Florida Supreme Court, then formed Florida law firm Lawson Huck Gonzalez along with the other DeSantis lawyers. Jason Gonzalez is the former chief advisor for the appointment of four Florida Supreme Court Justices, according to his Federalist Society profile.

DeSantis is also represented by D.C. firm Cooper & Kirk and its named partner Chuck Cooper, a former William Rehnquist clerk and onetime Trump potential pick for U.S. Solicitor General. Cooper is well-known in conservative legal circles and has represented John Bolton, Jeff Sessions, and many more high-profile clients.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos