By Published on .

For two decades, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates has managed to win over, buy or neutralize almost any force in the software market that got in his way. Until he faced a dour man in black.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, who last week refused to sign a watered-down federal antitrust settlement with Microsoft, is trying a judicial power play to tame the tiger of Microsoft and open the market to others.

"I think he sees Microsoft as this looming, omnipresent evil that will live on forever unless he gets on his white horse," said an attorney who has faced off against the judge in the past. "In his own way, he's going to set himself up as a regulatory tribunal."

The jury is still out on whether the judge or judged will prevail. Attorney General Janet Reno, supported by Microsoft, on Feb. 16 appealed the ruling. Any outcome may not be known for a year or more, legal observers say.

At issue is a settlement the Justice Department and Microsoft reached last summer, after a four-year antitrust investigation, that required the world's largest personal computer software marketer to make relatively small changes in business practices.

The agreement didn't require any substantive changes in Mr. Gates' hard-driving strategies in product marketing-much to the distress of lesser software rivals and, now, the judge.

Judge Sporkin, 63, spent the '60s and '70s as an attorney with the Securities & Exchange Commission and was appointed by President Reagan to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., a decade ago. But far from a laissez-faire Reaganite, the judge has consistently used the power of the court to upset the balance where he sees the need.

Whatever the issue, Judge Sporkin stands up for his beliefs. In a well-known ruling in 1991, the judge blocked a $1.2 billion settlement in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case, saying he wasn't sure it was in the interests of Native Americans.

The judge now appears to think federal regulators didn't go far enough in making a monopolistic case against Microsoft, and he's aiming to reopen the case.

Silicon Valley is populated largely by independent-spirited entrepreneurs, yet many welcome this government intervention if it can take back some power from Mr. Gates.

Curiously, people on both sides of the debate agree the judge doesn't fully understand the workings of the technology market.

Many legal observers think the judge will be overruled on appeal. If so, he can get in the long line of others-IBM Corp., Apple Computer and most software companies-bested by Mr. Gates.


Stanley Sporkin

BIRTH DATE: Feb. 7, 1932, in Philadelphia

EDUCATION: B.A., Pennsylvania State University; law degree, Yale University.

CAREER: U.S. district judge, Washington, D.C., since 1985; general counsel CIA, Washington, 1981-1985; director divisional enforcement Securities & Exchange Commission, 1973-1981.

PERSONAL: Married to Judith; children, Elizabeth, Daniel,


Most Popular
In this article: