The ultimate success of the federal government's effort to break up Microsoft will depend on unknown political and legal cycles, but there seems to be one certainty among legal and political experts: Nothing will happen quickly.
Even if Microsoft obtains an expedited appeal, experts in complex civil litigation said Wednesday, it could take anywhere from one to two years to exhaust the legal process -- especially if the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.
''It won't be over with this judge's ruling, this case will be around for a while,'' said Wendy Collins Perdue, associate dean of the Georgetown University Law Center.
As a result, well before the next round of appeals is argued, there will be a new president in the White House who will choose his own attorney general to head the Justice Department. That could make the 2000 presidential election as likely to influence the case as any appellate court ruling.
That new presidents have power to kill long-running antitrust battles is clear.
Within a year after taking office in January, 1981, for example, President Reagan, acting through the Justice Department, tossed out several cases he inherited from the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. The actions included withdrawing litigation against IBM, and settling suits leading to the breakup of AT&T.
But legal and political analysts agree it's doubtful that either Texas Gov. George W. Bush, this year's presumptive Republican nominee, or Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, would drop the case outright once in office.
Instead, the experts said, modifications could be suggested that might lessen the impact.
Even though Bush has expressed opposition to a breakup, ''a Bush administration would feel reluctant to drop the case, particularly if it has been determined by a court that Microsoft violated the law,'' said Jonathan Siegel, a law professor at George Washington University who also served in the Clinton Justice Department. ''That would open them to charges they are the government of big business. It could harm them politically.''
What's more, even if the next president did rein in the federal case, attorneys representing at least 19 states would likely press ahead.
''It's just improbable that an administration would take a decided case and undecide it,'' said Stuart Gerson, a Washington, D.C., attorney and Bush supporter who headed the Justice Department's Civil Division under President Bush.
Unlike the IBM and AT&T matters, the Microsoft case has already been decided in U.S. District Court, he pointed out, adding, ''My own view is that there is a lot of continuity from administration to administration'' in antitrust cases.
But Gerson said a new administration might suggest modifications that would give Microsoft more room to maneuver than under the present ruling.
Last fall, Gore said it was inappropriate to comment on the case because litigation was pending. But when pressed, he said he supported the nation's antitrust laws as applied to software companies. ''If dominance in one area is used to prevent competition in another area, that is wrong,'' Gore said.
Bush has taken the other side. On March 3, before a speaking engagement at the State University at Stony Brook in New York, Bush said he opposed a breakup, noting, ''I'm against it. There has got to be a better remedy than to break up a successful company that employs lots of people.''
But Bush has offered no alternative penalty, instead suggesting that rapid innovation taking place during a lengthy appeals process might obviate the need for a punishment.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.