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Disney loses bid to dismiss or pause DeSantis board’s state case

BusinessDisney loses bid to dismiss or pause DeSantis board's state case

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An entranceway to Walt Disney World on February 08, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

A Florida judge on Friday rejected Disney’s bid to dismiss a state lawsuit filed by the board of supervisors that Gov. Ron DeSantis had picked to oversee Walt Disney World’s operations amid a bitter political feud.

The ruling in the state-level case is separate from Disney’s ongoing federal lawsuit accusing DeSantis and his allies of waging a political retaliation campaign against the entertainment giant over its opposition to a controversial classroom bill last year.

“Today’s decision has no bearing on our lawsuit in federal court to vindicate Disney’s constitutional rights, and we are fully confident Disney will prevail in both the federal and state cases,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement Friday afternoon.

The protracted battle between Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers, and DeSantis, a high-profile contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is being fought on multiple battlefields.

In the two lawsuits, it currently centers on the special tax district that had allowed Disney’s Orlando-area parks to effectively self-govern their operations since the 1960s.

But the clash began last year, when Disney denounced legislation in Florida that limited classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics. Soon after, DeSantis and his allies in the state’s GOP-led Legislature moved to dissolve Disney World’s special district.

The district, formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, was ultimately left intact. But its name was changed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, or CFTOD, and its five-member board of supervisors was replaced with figures picked by DeSantis himself.

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Before that new board took charge, Disney crafted and secured development deals that it says were aimed to protect its investments in the region. But the DeSantis-picked board cried foul, accusing Disney of thwarting its power.

The board voted in April to void those deals, and Disney sued in federal court, accusing DeSantis of orchestrating a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power.”

The CFTOD board countersued days later in state court. In May, Disney asked the court to dismiss that case, arguing in part that it was moot after DeSantis signed additional legislation that voided the company’s development contracts.

In Friday’s ruling, Judge Margaret Schreiber disagreed.

The dispute over Disney’s contracts “will not be resolved until a court of competent jurisdiction decides the issue in favor of one party or the other,” she wrote in a 14-page decision. “That issue is alive and active and has real-world consequences for both parties.”

DeSantis, whose political rhetoric is steeped in the language of conservative cultural warfare against “woke” issues, has kept up his attacks on Disney even as his campaign appears to be under strain.

Once considered former President Donald Trump’s only real challenger in the GOP primary fight, DeSantis has dealt with sagging poll numbers and growing questions from even his allies about his campaign strategy.

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