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By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON May 7 As the U.S. Supreme Court's
nine-month term reaches a climax, nearly all of the most hotly
anticipated decisions will be in high-stakes business cases.
Between now and the end of June, when the court must decide
all of the cases argued since October, the nine justices will
issue a string of rulings on the viability of securities class
action lawsuits, the legal rules for patenting software and the
fate of online TV startup Aereo.
Those rulings could in some ways overshadow some of the
cases that touch upon social and political issues, which most
often take center stage this time of year.
Although the court still must decide such cases - protests
outside abortion clinics and religious objections to President
Barack Obama's healthcare law - none is as important as the 2012
opinion that upheld the individual mandate of the healthcare law
or the one in 2013 helping to pave the way for gay marriage.
"There isn't a singular blockbuster," said Pratik Shah, a
lawyer with the Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm. But he
said the securities class action and software patent cases could
have huge ramifications for business.
In the securities case, Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund,
the court could hand a sizable setback to the securities class
action plaintiffs' bar by making it harder to bring such
lawsuits. The case could give corporations better defenses at
the preliminary class certification stage of the litigation.
The patent case, Alice Corp v. CLS Bank, could tighten up
eligibility requirements for software patents, possibly curbing
litigation brought by so-called "patent trolls," defined as
companies that hold patents only for the purpose of suing firms
seeking to develop new products.
Oral arguments, heard in March, showed justices wary of
broad rulings in either case, but each still has the capacity to
reshape the law in their respective areas.
"They will be significant as much for how broadly they are
written as to who actually wins," said Kannon Shanmugam, a
lawyer at Williams & Connolly.
The case of Aereo, a company backed by media mogul Barry
Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, will likely have an
impact on the television industry. The online service that
enables subscribers to watch broadcast TV on mobile devices and
computers, is accused by TV networks of violating copyright law.
A win for Aereo could spur innovation in the industry by
paving the way to new, cheaper ways for consumers to watch
shows. It also could threaten the estimated $3 billion in
so-called retransmission fees that broadcasters get from cable
and satellite TV systems. If Aereo loses, it could be forced to
Although sympathetic to the networks generally, the justices
signaled concern during oral argument in April that a ruling
against Aereo could threaten increasingly popular cloud
"There was no love lost for Aereo," said Shah, the Akin Gump
The court has yet to decide other business cases such as an
industry-backed challenge to one of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's greenhouse gas regulations. An opinion is
also pending in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce questioning Obama
administration appointments to the National Labor Relations
Board, the government agency that conducts elections for unions
and investigates unfair labor practices.
In addition to the Aereo and software patent cases, the
court has several other intellectual property decisions to make,
having heard this term the highest proportion of intellectual
property cases in its history.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)