Most States On Sidelines In Microsoft Legal Action
By Bair S Walker , Senior Writer
Most states played no role in the landmark antitrust lawsuit the U.S. Justice Department and 19 states won against Microsoft Corp this week. Some of the 31 attorneys general who sat out the Microsoft legal battle gave reasons that ranged from inadequate resources to not believing the Redmond, Wash. software giant did anything wrong.
For Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, arguments that Microsoft sought to monopolize the computer software and Web browser industries just weren't compelling enough.
"I believe in vigorous antitrust enforcement, particularly when there are conspiracies to restrain trade, such as price-fixing. But I'm a lot more skeptical about price-fixing cases that seem to complain that a company has been too successful in the marketplace. From all that I have seen, Microsoft delivers a superior product at reasonable prices that has the enthusiastic support of consumers, " Pryor said in an interview with Stateline.org.
Nineteen states -- California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- joined the federal government in suing Microsoft.
Federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled on Monday that Microsoft violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, saying the firm had kept "an oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune."
South Carolina was originally a plaintiff in the case, but dropped out in December 1998 after Attorney General Charlie Condon decided that suing the software manufacturer was unnecessary. After reading that a competing Web browser manufacturer, Netscape, merged with AOL, Condon withdrew his state from the suit, spokesman Robb McBurney says.
A Republican, Condon has come under fire for receiving $3,500 from Microsoft in 1999 for his next political race, and also because of a $25,000 donation Microsoft made to South Carolina's GOP before he exited the Microsoft legal action. Condon told the Charleston Post and Courier on Tuesday there was "no link at all" between Microsoft's donations and his decision.
Most attorneys general who watched from the sidelines say they just lacked the manpower and money to sue along with the Justice Department.
"Once the federal Department of Justice is involved, if the Justice Department prevails, any decision is going to apply in all the states," says Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer, whose state was a Microsoft noncombatant. "It wasn't clear to me that it was in the best interests of Maine consumers to be involved in that action," says Ketterer, president-elect of the National Association of Attorneys General.
In the midst of battling Big Tobacco when the Microsoft antitrust litigation was filed 23 months ago, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers decided to take a flier.
"Oregon has a very small antitrust section, and we try not to duplicate efforts being made by the feds that will benefit all states," Myers says. "We didn't think it would be a good resource investment for us -- we have limited resources and I have to be a good steward of those resources."
Although Oregon wasn't a litigant, Myers agrees with the Judge Jackson's ruling in the Microsoft case. "Based on my understanding of the evidence, and I've followed it mostly in terms of news accounts, I think there are factual supports for the judge's findings and conclusions. My guess is that it would be an uphill battle to overturn," he said.
Georgia stayed clear of Microsoft primarily because of the state's laws, Attorney General Thurbert Baker says. "In Georgia, we do not have an act that would give you the authority to get involved in antitrust issues. Because we don't have that, we've been unable to get involved in cases of this nature."
Oklahoma Attorney General Gerald Adams' office lacks an antitrust division, and also didn't have adequate resources to go after Microsoft, spokesman Gerald Adams said.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell got the authorization and funding to start an antitrust unit after the lawsuit was already underway, spokeswoman Julie Brill said.
In Montana, the oft-cited resources bugaboo tied Joseph Mazurek's hands. "When we looked at (Microsoft), because it looked like it could be protracted litigation, we just didn't think we could afford to participate," spokeswoman Beth Baker explains.
The same held true for Delaware Attorney General M. Jane Brady. "We're talking about a commitment of resources that's not practical for us," spokesman Todd Halliday notes. "There was a sentiment that it was much more appropriate for us to monitor the developments and proceedings."
Many states that weren't a party to the Microsoft antitrust suit are pleased with Judge Jackson's ruling, but Alabama Attorney General Pryor notes that it's early yet to get too excited.
"Judge Jackson has issued (antitrust) rulings before against Microsoft and, to my knowledge, not a single one has been affirmed yet," Pryor says. "So we ought to wait to see the rest of the story."