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Court rules in Oracle's favor on access to evidence

The software maker wins a small battle in the PeopleSoft case, with a pretrial ruling that preserves the rights of its attorneys to review sensitive information submitted by competitors.

SAN FRANCISCO--Oracle won a small battle Friday in its antitrust case against the government with a pretrial ruling that preserves the rights of its in-house attorneys to review sensitive information submitted by competitors and customers in the discovery phase of the case.

At Friday's hearing here, United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker denied requests from the Justice Department and several Oracle competitors and customers to expand a protective order restricting Oracle's access to confidential information that may be used as evidence against it in an upcoming trial.

"I don't believe Oracle should be handicapped" in its defense, Walker said while delivering his ruling.

Oracle is challenging a U.S. Justice Department suit that seeks to block the company from acquiring software rival PeopleSoft. The government suit alleges that the acquisition would harm competition in the market for business systems that help large organizations run their operations smoothly. The trial is set to begin June 7.

In favor of expanded protections were Oracle competitors Lawson Software, Microsoft, PeopleSoft and SAP. Each have filed with the court tens of thousands of pages of documents that contain detailed information about bidding procedures, product development plans and other "sensitive trade secrets," a lawyer representing SAP said at the hearing.

The Department of Defense, which uses Oracle's applications software to run its human resources operations, also asked that certain documents be kept out of the hands of Oracle's in-house counsel. Attorneys representing the department and each of the competitors mentioned above made their arguments for expanded protections at Friday's hearing. Their main concern was that Oracle's attorney could inadvertently or improperly disclose confidential competitive information to Oracle staff involved in sales, corporate strategy or product development.

Oracle's attorney argued that an expanded protective order would harm Oracle's ability to fully defend itself, particularly because it hired a different law firm to help it fight the government suit than the firm the company used to represent it in the eight-month Justice Department review of the deal.

Walker concluded that the risk of inadvertent or improper disclosure of third-party information by the two in-house Oracle attorneys allowed to view the documents is low and the risk of an impaired defense as a result of expanded protections is high.

The judge also denied related requests to predefine penalties for breaking the protective order and to further segment third-party documents into numerous categories subject to different protections. However, he did grant one request asking Oracle and its law firm to refrain from exchanging electronic files containing third parties' sensitive information using Oracle's own internal e-mail servers.

Walker also ruled against calling on an expert witness or technical advisor to help him sort out some of the technology and economic aspects of the case. Both Oracle and the Justice Department were against the use of an expert witness. Instead, the judge agreed to a tutorial to help familiarize himself with the "product landscape," a suggestion made earlier by Oracle.

PeopleSoft spokesman Steve Swasey said his company is satisfied with the ruling. Oracle representatives declined to comment.