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Where does the judge stand?

While Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has handled high-profile court cases, it's less clear how much he really knows about computer technology or antitrust law.

It is also unclear how familiar Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is with computers. But based on interviews with judges and attorneys who know him, it appears that he is no technology buff.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Jackson practiced commercial litigation at Jackson & Campbell, Jackson shares the same dispositions that federal judges in the District of Columbia generally share--a lot of deference to the federal government.  --antitrust attorney Philip O'Neill the Washington law firm founded by his father. The firm is best known for work it has done for Republican politicians and efforts, including the Committee for the Reelection of the President, which financed President Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign.

Since his 1982 appointment by President Ronald Reagan, Jackson has seen his share of controversy. A week after sentencing D.C. mayor Marion Barry in 1990 to a maximum sentence of six months for a misdemeanor drug conviction, the judge told an audience at Harvard Law School that he believed four jurors had failed to disclose biases in favor of Barry, as was required by pretrial proceedings. He went on to say that he had "never seen a stronger government" criminal case. The remarks caused an uproar because the case was pending on appeal and led to motions by Barry's attorneys to throw Jackson off the case.

In addition, in 1996 Washingtonian magazine ranked Jackson last among the 15 district judges assigned to Washington, D.C. The magazine cited a backlog of cases that in some cases dated back for years and interviews with attorneys who said Jackson's courtroom manner was "tyrannical." A number of attorneys told CNET's NEWS.COM that contrary to that article, Jackson is in fact fair and accommodating in court. But a number of them agreed that he can get bogged down in deciding difficult cases.

This could be significant because delays in deciding the case would almost certainly be an advantage for Microsoft, which has urged Jackson to draw out the fact-finding process for as long as possible. A decision issued after the release of Windows 98--into which the Explorer browser will be tightly integrated--could render the ruling moot, since the case hinges on the specifics of Windows 95.

The Justice Department argues that a prompt decision is crucial for another reason, namely a February deadline after which it says Microsoft will terminate licenses for all PC vendors refusing to include IE with Windows 95.

Despite the urgency that Justice is bringing to the case, legal experts said that Jackson's past controversies--combined with the high-stake, highly visible nature of the Microsoft case--are likely to make the already cautious and conservative judge especially deliberate.

Even though the Justice Department's case essentially involves whether Microsoft violated the letter of the 1995 consent decree, "the government will have to convince the judge at some level of consciousness that what Microsoft is doing is going to have anticompetitive effects," said Simon Lazarus, an antitrust attorney at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer, & Murphy in Washington.

Ruling for the prosecution may ultimately clash with Jackson's conservative leanings. "If he rules for the government, he is then going to have given this decree a more aggressive construction," added Lazarus. "It wouldn't be nearly as intrusive and activist as breaking up AT&T [in 1984], but it will nonetheless put some regulatory responsibilities on Judge Jackson."