WASHINGTON -- The business world celebrated historic victories
and suffered stinging defeats during the Supreme Court term that
In some of the biggest decisions -- announced during the term's
final week -- the high court stood up for free speech in cyberspace,
raised stiff hurdles to class-action settlements of large personal-
injury cases and backed tough law enforcement powers for curbing
Still, in business disputes, the nine-month session was vividly
characterized by a lack of defining ideology from nine justices who
were most comfortable with a deliberate, case-by-case approach that
sometimes raised more questions than it answered.
"They tended to decide business cases narrowly," Washington
appellate lawyer Charles Rothfeld said. "They're not really on an
ideological warpath. They don't want to make mistakes."
"If one thing's sure," Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips
said, "it's that if it's not clear, it'll come back up." For
companies and their lawyers, though, Phillips said, "it's a very
In a prime example of that trend, the Supreme Court seemed to
simply surrender after trying to clear up important but complex
questions about when to start a four-year statute of limitations for
lawsuits under a federal racketeering law, which is increasingly
to seek stiff penalties for business-related fraud.
Faced with four conflicting legal theories by different judges,
the high court earlier this month rejected one approach that gave
people the longest time to file a lawsuit. Because that was enough
to settle the specific case at hand, the justices decided not to
decide among the other three. That move continues to leave companies
and their lawyers in the dark -- prompting Justice Antonin Scalia
to accuse his colleagues of "timidity" for failing to "summon the
courage to unravel . . . the mess."
In another high-stakes business dispute, the justices reviewed an
appeal by General Motors Corp.'s Hughes Electronics subsidiary,
asked the high court to settle several common and crucial questions
about when companies can be sued by corporate whistleblowers
The court unanimously found a relatively limited legal reason to
throw out the suit against Hughes, without addressing several far
more sweeping questions that continue to confront a wide range of
"It's a nice win for Hughes, but doesn't do much to tell the rest
of us what the law means," Phillips said.
The high court ended with a bang, as the justices handed down
almost a quarter of their opinions for the year -- including most
of the term's marquee cases -- during five frantic days before
starting their summer break.
On Thursday, Internet-related companies got perhaps the business
community's biggest victory in a landmark decision to strike down a
law that made it a crime to post indecent material on a computer
network where children might see it.
That came a day after the asbestos industry was stung by a ruling
that threw out a $1.3 billion class-action settlement designed to
protect 20 companies from all current and future lawsuits over
The high court imposed stiff rules about when large groups of
lawsuits can be resolved in a single settlement, undermining a
company's ability to eliminate massive legal problems in a one class-
In other high profile cases, the court upheld federal rules that
require cable television companies to carry the signals of local
broadcast stations, ratified rules that make it easier for patent
owners to claim infringement damages from competing products that
similar to patented inventions and upheld the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's ability to impose mandatory fees on farmers and
ranchers to pay for generic industry advertising.
During the last week of the term, the high court handed federal
prosecutors a major victory when it upheld their ability to press
insider-trading charges against investors who aren't true company