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Hot summer for Ninth Circuit motions panel: Qualcomm’s motion to stay enforcement of FTC remedies still pending after more than 3 weeks

Imagine you’re a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and from time to time you serve on the Motions Panel that changes every month. Motions to stay the enforcement of injunctions are the most critical ones to resolve, short of anything related to executions, but there aren’t any pending in the Ninth Circuit.

Most motions, including those motions to stay enforcement, involve relatively narrow issues. But from time to time, a “monster” motion comes along. That’s what happened when Qualcomm, understandably though I mostly disagree with them on substance, sought a stay of the enforcement of the injunction the FTC had obtained from Judge Lucy H. Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Just the findings of fact and conclusion of law underlying the order span 233 pages. But there’s also been a significant volume of briefing on the motion. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, a longstanding Qualcomm friend who represented Qualcomm while in private practice, heads the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, and his subordinates made a filing in support of Qualcomm that was also backed by a couple of other Administration officials. The FTC’s solid but somewhat lackluster opposition to Qualcomm’s motion was supported by industry body ACT | The App Association and by chipmaker MediaTek, whose filing showed a Qualcomm-internal presentation depicting competitors’ exits from the cellular baseband chipset market with tombstones.

The national security arguments made by Qualcomm and its usual allies are bogus claims from different perspectives. Not only are products, not patents, relevant to security and is Qualcomm far too profitable that a requirement to extend patent licenses on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms could threaten the innovative capacity of a company that spent far more on stock buybacks in recent years than on research and development, but Qualcomm’s national-security argument also comes down to them saying that the elimination of competition (by means that the district court found illegal) has now made them, as the sole survivor, absolutely critical to U.S. national security. Meanwhile, Apple has acquired Intel’s mobile chipset division, ensuring that there still is at least one major U.S. company investing in R&D in this field.

But let’s again try to look at this from the vantage point of a judge on the Ninth Circuit motions panel. You get hundreds and hundreds of pages to review, which point to lots of external documents, such as other decisions. That’s why, after Qualcomm was granted expedited appellate proceedings, they found even they, with their vast resources and their intimate knowledge of the issues, needed more time. You see a submission by the federal government that urges you to grant the motion lest the world descend into chaos.

It’s not easy to brush aside those concerns by giving the motion short shrift. Judge Koh denied Qualcomm’s original motion to stay enforcement quickly, but the original ruling had taken even her (as famous as she is for working smart and hard) well over three months after the January trial. I still remember the laughter in her courtroom when she said: “Sadly, this opinion’s gonna take some time.” It did, but the result was well worth it.

It’s now been more than three weeks since briefing was completed, and some knowledgeable people had actually expected a decision to come down in July.

I’m not sure about how the Ninth Circuit organizes this internally, but I presume that the July motions panel (with a Democratic majority) is still in charge, given that the motion was fully briefed before the end of July and the judges on the motions panel are, according to the appeals court’s website, “assigned to consider ready substantive motions matters,” and this one was ready with almost a week left in July. The August panel has a Republican majority, so should that new panel be in charge now, then the DOJ’s brief would likely be given more weight unless they see that a former Qualcomm lawyer’s lobbying for his past client (and possibly also future client when he returns to private practice) doesn’t make the idea of healthy competition an ideological cause.

The decision will be interesting, but whatever the outcome may be, let’s not overrate it. An appeals court may well stay enforcement, especially for the duration of an expedited appeal, but nevertheless affirm, in whole or in large parts, when the focus is entirely on the merits, or it may deny a stay but identify serious issues later on.

The time that it’s taking them to decide can’t be reliably interpreted. The only safe assumption is that they are kind of overwhelmed. It might mean that they’re working on a rationale that will enable them to grant the motion without taking such a strong position that would suggest the merits panel could decide only one way. It could also mean that they’ve concluded the motion should be denied, but in light of governmental brouhaha about the end of the world being nigh, the appeals court wants to write up a thorough denial. Qualcomm might internally–and reasonably–view the time that this is taking as a sign that is more likely than not to be positive, especially since I guess they feared a swift denial of their motion. Contrary to Qualcomm’s representations, it’s not like anything dramatic would happen to Qualcomm’s business in the very short term, given that any license (re)negotiations would take a lot longer at any rate.

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