Major League Baseball's Nightmare: A Judge Who Isn't a Fan of Instant Replay

Judge Shira Scheindlin refuses to certify an appeal on her ruling that could shake up sports broadcasting
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As Major League Baseball prepares to usher in this year's postseason, the league must be horrified at the rulings being issued by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin. Not only has the judge ruled that the league's antitrust exemption doesn't apply to television broadcast rights, but she's now standing in the way of the league's attempt to file an interlocutory appeal in a lawsuit that could change the way that games are packaged and distributed.

In baseball terms, an interlocutory appeal is like "instant replay." The game gets halted while the umpires review whether the call is correct.

Here, MLB believes that the nearly century-old antitrust exemption extends beyond labor matters to allow them to do things like work with Comcast and DirecTV for out-of-market game packages. The plaintiffs allege that the leagues' teams are an "illegal cartel" that makes "agreements to eliminate competition in the distribution of games over the Internet and television."

The dispute has fallen under the purview of Judge Scheindlin, who has a history of causing trouble for professional sports leagues. For example, a decade ago, she ruled in a case concerning Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett that the NFL's age-based restrictions on draft eligibility ran afoul of antitrust laws. She was later reversed by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

This time, Judge Scheindlin isn't going to make a review of her call very easy.

In an opinion on Monday, she addresses the issue of whether the MLB's antitrust exemption creates substantial grounds for difference of opinion. It's one of the factors that judges analyze when deciding whether to certify an interlocutory appeal.

MLB argued that "the Supreme Court and all Circuit Courts cases consistently hold that the exemption applies broadly to the 'business of baseball,' not just … to certain aspects of that business."

How's this for a stubborn response?

"But for the reasons set forth in my August 8, 2014 opinion, I do not believe my ruling is contrary to existing law," she writes. "That issue has already been decided, and I decline to reopen it here."

Judge Scheindlin also rejects the argument that even if there's no clash with existing case law, the latest dispute presents a difficult issue of first impression that should warrant an interlocutory appeal.

"But the silence of an appellate court is not enough," she writes. "If it were, interlocutory appeals would be the norm, not the exception."

The judge clearly wants the case to go to trial before any appeal. Such a proceeding would examine the overall competitive impact of the territorial rules enacted by MLB and its broadcast partners.

Rather interestingly, she also wants first opportunity to address the question of whether Comcast and DirecTV hold liability over the way that baseball games are packaged and priced. The television defendants appear to argue that they are also covered by MLB's antitrust immunity, which is why they support an immediate appeal. But the judge thinks that the issue of liability is a "complicated and disputed issue," and the facts presented needs to be fleshed out before heading to an appeals court.

For those reasons, plus an "illogical" jurisdictional challenge, she denies the motion to certify an immediate appeal.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

 

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