Earlier this week, a judge rejected a lawsuit brought by Florida taxpayers in Osceola County.
Last month, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill to revoke Walt Disney World’s special district status, which allowed Walt Disney to self-govern its Reedy Creek tax district. Florida taxpayers were concerned that they would end up footing the bill for road maintenance, the fire department, and other essential services that Disney has been covering for the past 55 years.
According to Deadline, the litigants felt that DeSantis’ decision to revoke the special district status and leave taxpayers potentially on the hook for over a billion in bond debt was in retaliation against Disney’s criticism of the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In the lawsuit, Florida taxpayers said that DeSantis’ punitive measure violated Disney’s First Amendment right to free speech, which then violated their own Constitutional rights.
Judge Rules Against Florida Taxpayers In Disney District Lawsuit
However, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled against the lawsuit. “They allege what is, in essence, a First Amendment retaliation claim on Disney’s behalf,” she reportedly wrote in her ruling. “And First Amendment retaliation claims do not qualify for watered-down third-party standing standards.”
The Hollywood Reporter provided more details about the judge’s decision. “Plaintiffs’ theory of standing is that the elimination of the Reedy Creek Improvement District might result in financial harm to Plaintiffs by virtue of a tax increase that has not yet been enacted,” read the order. “That indirect and highly speculative alleged injury cannot support federal jurisdiction. Senate Bill 4-C itself will not raise Plaintiffs’ taxes. Again — it is worth emphasizing — the bill does not apply to Plaintiffs at all.”
The judge dubbed the lawsuit a “shotgun pleading” and noted that it was filed in the wrong division of Florida federal court. As Deadline stated, the judge had concluded that the issue fell within the state’s jurisdiction. Altonaga insisted that she does not have the authority to rule on First Amendment violation claims. Additionally, she said that the Florida taxpayers have not suffered any injuries as a result of DeSantis’ decision to strip Disney of its special district status.
Judge Will Not Hear Case Claiming That Disney’s First Amendment Rights Were Violated
“Even more critically, Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that Disney faces any hindrance in asserting its own First Amendment rights,” the order read. “Far from it: Plaintiffs expressly allege that they ‘expect Disney and the State of Florida to litigate this matter for a significant period of time[.]’ That fact alone warrants dismissal.”
The judge further stated that the dissolution of the Reedy Creek district won’t harm Florida taxpayers because the “challenged law does not apply to them, they do not allege direct harm as a result of the challenged law, and they do not plausibly allege any credible threat of direct harm in the future.”
Under the new law, Disney’s special district status will be eliminated in June 2023, unless they can come to a new agreement during that time.
Because the lawsuit alleges state law claims, Altonaga added that a case cannot be brought in federal court against state officials. She wrote, “It is difficult to think of a greater intrusion on state sovereignty than when a federal court instructs state officials on how to conform their conduct to state law.”
Although Florida taxpayers are concerned that Disney’s special district status dissolution will lead to higher taxes, DeSantis has indicated that their fears have “no basis in reality.”
“Perhaps this will put to rest the speculation from those who are hoping – with no basis in reality – that this will end in some sort of taxpayer or state burden that partisan critics can use against the governor,” a representative for DeSantis said in a statement.
They added, “In reality, this opportunity can, and should be utilized to generate more taxes from Disney, as the governor has said.” However, it still remains to be seen if Disney and the Florida government will be able to reach a new agreement prior to June 2023.