Will Stock Decline Affect Microsoft Case?

WASHINGTON (04/18/2000) - During the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson kept track of current events, sometimes asking questions about the latest headlines. For instance, when America Online Inc. bought Netscape Communications Corp., Jackson immediately asked about it in court.

Now some observers and analysts are asking whether Microsoft's stock decline since the ruling may influence or mitigate the judge's choice of remedy.

The judge is due to get a remedy recommendation from the government by April 28. But ongoing disagreements among 19 states and the U.S. Department of Justice could leave the judge with a menu of remedy choices. Joel Klein, the U.S. assistant attorney general, last week told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that the views of the states on potential remedies "are not always identical to ours."

While the government sorts out that problem, the judge may be influenced by Microsoft's stock market decline since the April 3 ruling against the company, said one person close to the case. On March 31, the company's stock was selling at about $106 per share; it dropped to about $90 per share the day of the ruling and has been down since then, along with many other tech stocks.

That decline may have its greatest influence on the attorneys general, said an antitrust expert. "If they didn't fully appreciate the potential impact they had on the real world . . . they should appreciate it after the huge dropoff," said Rich Gray, an attorney at Outside General Counsel Silicon Valley in Menlo Park, California.

Yet even if the states and federal officials end up agreeing on a single remedy, such as a breakup or changes in conduct, it may not matter. The judge has absolute discretion in imposing his own remedies, legal experts said.

In the meantime, members of Congress got some advice from Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to let the the judicial system do its job and keep the ruling from turning into a political battle.

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