DeSantis and New Disney Board Ask Federal Court to Back Off

Dan M. Berger
By Dan M. Berger
August 11, 2023US News
DeSantis and New Disney Board Ask Federal Court to Back Off
People visit the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on April 18, 2022. (Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo)

Lawyers for Disney World’s new governing board support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s motion asking a federal judge to abstain from—or dismiss—the giant entertainment company’s lawsuit against him.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was created after Mr. DeSantis moved last year to strip Disney of the self-governing powers it had enjoyed for more than half a century.

In a brief filed Aug. 9, its lawyers said the lawsuit belongs in state court—where another case is pending—for two reasons. Disney had agreed that disputes would be heard in that forum.

And in a 1941 case, Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., the U.S. Supreme Court “counsels [federal court] abstention for disputes involving unsettled issues of state law,” even when the federal court otherwise has legal jurisdiction, district lawyers said.

The CFTOD argues in its brief that Disney’s development agreement with the previous board that it controlled, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and the restrictive covenants created by it were never valid.

It added Disney has effectively admitted that in its filings, the district said in a public statement.

The tourism district also argues that Disney’s First Amendment claims have no merit.

Disney has argued that the governor’s moves to strip it of its unique self-governing status after company leaders came out against Mr. DeSantis’s signature Parental Rights in Education bill—dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by detractors—punished it improperly for expressing protected political opinions.

Mr. DeSantis speaks of Disney frequently as he runs for president, and it’s part of his “war on woke,” in which he has sought to make “Florida the place where woke goes to die.”

He never denies that the Parental Rights issue triggered his Disney pushback.

But he frames it as the removal of privileges Disney never should have enjoyed in the first place.

NTD Photo
(Left) Guests are seen at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in a file photo. (Right) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Feb. 24, 2022. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dating back to its 1967 creation, Disney World was governed by a special district, effectively removing it from the jurisdiction of the two counties it straddles.

Disney appointed the members of the district board. It also enjoyed various exemptions from taxes, regulations, and inspections.

None of its competitors, like Universal or Sea World, enjoy such treatment, DeSantis has said.

Early this year, after the legislature had voted to disband the Reedy Creek board and as the state prepared to create the new CFTOD board with five members appointed by the governor, Disney and the old board made an 11th-hour deal attempting to undercut the new board’s ability to govern it, and establishing a 30-year deal giving Disney the sole power to approve development projects.

That was signed by Reedy Creek’s board of supervisors on Feb. 8.

DeSantis signed the legislation creating the new board on Feb. 27.

The state claimed that the deal was illegal and void.

Disney then sued the governor and the board members.

The tourism district has sued Disney in state court to establish it had the authority to void the deal between Disney and the old board.

NTD Photo
A float with people dressed as characters from the Walt Disney movie “Peter Pan” is seen as people attend the “Festival of Fantasy” parade at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Fla., on July 30, 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Disney filed its lawsuit in April in the U.S. District Court for Florida’s Northern District, alleging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”

The district maintains in both lawsuits that Disney’s claim of illegal retaliation by the governor can’t be dealt with in federal court until the state court decides if the development deal was unlawful and thus void from the start, its lawyers argue in their brief.

The district says that Disney and the old board failed to notify property owners—and there are some besides Disney, both homeowners and businesses—of the pending deal.

“Disney confirms that the agreements at the heart of this dispute were entered to frustrate the will of the people of Florida, expressed through their elected representatives, about how to organize the governance of the state,” the district added.

“The agreements, Disney states, were meant to ‘secure’ for Disney’ long-term certainty … before RCID’s dissolution and governance changes took effect.’

“The Constitution, however, does not entitle Disney to a local government that functions essentially as the company’s wholly owned subsidiary, nor does it grant Disney a right to undermine the state’s attempt to end that corrupting arrangement.”

State Attorney General Ashley Moody and her legal staff—representing Mr. DeSantis and co-defendant Meredith Ivey, the acting Secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity—wrote: “Disney’s response teems with majestic generalities about how the state defendants’ implement, administer, [and] enforce” the challenged provisions.

NTD Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks during a press conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“But Disney must do more than generalize: It must show that the state defendants have specific, formal power to enforce the challenged laws, such that an injunction against them would ‘be effectual.’

“Because neither the governor nor the secretary has such formal power, Disney lacks standing and cannot overcome the state defendants’ sovereign immunity. And to the extent Disney continues to challenge acts taken in the governor’s legislative capacity, its claims are barred by legislative immunity.”

From The Epoch Times

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