Bill Gates Gets Backup From the Supremes

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Speed, the Supreme Court decided, is not of the essence in the Microsoft case — essence is.

By an 8-1 vote Tuesday, the highest court thwacked the turn-of-the-millennium's biggest antitrust case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C., which will only be too happy to play its part: Pruning the case's issues down to a more svelte size and scope before making its decision. Tactically, the decision is a disappointment for the Justice Department and a score for Microsoft, which has gotten some good treatment at Appeals' hands in the past and thinks it has some good procedural beefs to take to it this time.

Practically, it means just one thing: spring 2002, with Appeals reaching their decision in perhaps spring 2001. Then, we may assume, the loser will appeal back up to the Supremes — which can then decide again whether it's as judicially appetizing as, say, the one about handicapped golfer Casey Martin riding a cart on the PGA tour (evidently preferable this time around).

"The case significantly effects [sic] an important sector of the economy — a sector characterized by rapid technological change," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his lone dissent (an unusually brief two-paragraph job). "Speed and reaching a final decision may help create legal certainty. That certainty in turn may further the economic development of that sector so important to our nation's prosperity."

Breyer also devoted a few words to the "competing considerations" of his colleagues: The appeals court "would likely narrow, focus and initially decide the legal issues now presented here," Breyer said. "It would thereby facilitate any later deliberations in this court." Breyer figured that the Supremes, with some additional briefs and oral arguments, could have handled the pruning itself; the other eight justices said no thanks.

Microsoft — whose stock hopped on the news but is still well below its highs from less troubled times — now gets its chance to put what it hopes will be a Wen Ho Lee—esque spin on the case. Redmond's lawyers will be taking a basket of procedural complaints and charges of government sloppiness to a court much more suited to hearing them than the Supremes would be, and Justice will likely find itself forced to defend its tactics as well as the issues at stake. For Bill Gates, that's well worth another year in purgatory.