Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Judge Jackson: Ordinary Man As Trustbuster




When Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson was assigned the Microsoft antitrust case several years ago, he recited what he calls "the astronauts' prayer": "Please, God, don't let me screw this up."


Jackson issued his final verdict in the case Monday, finding the software giant guilty of violating antitrust laws in its relentless drive to sell its Windows operating system. While appeals courts may spend years weighing the final outcome, there's no doubt Jackson's prayer was answered.


Most of the plaudits in this case have gone to the U.S. Justice Department's lawyer, David Boies. But the real hero was Jackson. He was the person who finally had to make up his mind about the complicated facts and reach a verdict, playing the role of judicial Everyman and grappling with the mysteries of the tech wizards.


As a Republican and Reagan appointee who had sided with General Motors in a big case, Jackson might have been expected to lean Microsoft's way. But his only discernible lean was toward the 100-year-old Sherman Antitrust Act. When he summed up the case Monday, Jackson applied an old meat-market term to the technology marketplace, saying Microsoft had put an "oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune."


Jackson's secret was that he was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. That's the essential paradigm of the American judicial system - that ordinary people are the best judges of right and wrong and it worked sublimely in the Microsoft case. Jackson was never a fancy lawyer. After finishing Harvard Law, he came home to practice with his dad in a small firm. His specialty was medical malpractice cases - hardly glamorous, but he learned that by paying careful attention to witnesses, he could master a complex technical subject.


Jackson was smart enough not to try to impose himself on the case but to let the facts speak - through the opposing lawyers. Jackson let them educate him about the facts, while always looking at the big picture. He summarized the thousands of pages of evidence in his November "Findings of Fact," a devastating account of Microsoft's behavior, surprising both for the ferocity of Jackson's criticism and the clarity of his written account. The case will now move to a penalty phase, in which Jackson will quickly try to decide the best remedy for Microsoft's illegal monopoly.


On a bookcase in Jackson's chambers is a wooden duck he uses to illustrate a favorite joke that explains how he's managed this trial.


A law professor, an appellate judge and a district judge go duck hunting. The first one to hit a duck wins $100; if they hit something else, they have to pay $100. A bird flies overhead. The law professor says it has the characteristics of a duck, pulls the trigger and misses. Another bird is flushed, the appellate judge says the Supreme Court ruled that any bird appearing in this area should be judged a duck, pulls the trigger and misses. A third bird is on the wing. The district court judge fires, nails the bird, and mutters, "I sure hope that was a duck."


For Jackson, that story is the perfect calling card for an ordinary guy who listened to the most complicated issues, made up his mind for himself and pulled the trigger. And, yes, it was a duck.


David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.