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Judges consolidate 27 Microsoft antitrust suits

A panel of federal judges consolidates 27 of the private antitrust suits pending against the software giant to a single court in Baltimore.

A panel of federal judges has consolidated 27 of the private antitrust suits pending against Microsoft to a single court in Baltimore.

The move benefits both Microsoft and lawyers suing the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant. For Microsoft, the move reduces the number of jurisdictions it must battle. Lawyers gain a larger, united case that consolidates resources and diminishes divisions among them.

More than 130 private antitrust suits are pending against Microsoft, the majority of which are in state court. The panel of judges consolidated only 27 cases from 17 different jurisdictions.

Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland will oversee pretrial activity, which could begin soon. The case will not move quickly until after U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issues his final ruling in Microsoft's antitrust case with the Justice Department and 19 states.

The Justice Department and the 19 states are expected to file a joint proposal tomorrow to split the software giant in two, sources familiar with the case said. Sources said yesterday that the states will see special coverage: The verdict is injoin the federal government in proposing to break Microsoft into two separate companies, one to manufacture the Windows operating system and the other to make applications such as Microsoft Office programs.

Private attorneys started filing the bulk of civil antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft in November, soon after Jackson issued his "findings of fact."

Once Jackson issues his final ruling, lawyers hope to use his findings of fact in their cases and gain access to some of the government's evidence.

Class-action lawyers have not been idle while Jackson deliberated his ruling and Microsoft and the government held settlement talks that ultimately collapsed. Microsoft has also requested that many state suits be remanded to federal court and many others be dismissed.

Initially, more than two-thirds of the cases were filed in state courts, but Microsoft is succeeding in getting more remanded to the federal level every day. Currently, more than 80 federal cases are pending.

Microsoft is fearful of cases filed in state courts, where antitrust laws make it easier for consumers to recover big damages, say legal experts. Lawyers have filed suits in 38 states, with California being one of the favorite locales.

The law firms taking on Microsoft make up a Who's Who of class-action litigators. More than 20 big-name class-action law firms--with wins over tobacco, asbestos and even Nasdaq in their resumes--are behind the lawsuits. But bickering and battling over turf has slowed down their efforts.

Jackson's final ruling, which could come as soon as June 1, potentially would give attorneys access to loads of evidence gathered by the government and the use of Jackson's findings of fact. That document concluded Microsoft's anti-competitive behavior harmed consumers and many Microsoft competitors and customers.

"For many of these lawsuits, the government has already done 90 percent of the legwork," said University of Baltimore School of Law professor Bob Lande.

Winning civil antitrust suits usually requires deep pockets, as lawyers must often spend huge amounts of time digging through countless records and other evidence looking for wrongdoing to prove a case.

Even if the lawyers get access to this material--and they likely would not in the majority of the cases--they would still have to prove other things in their cases, say legal experts.