• U.S.


3 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Justice department lawyers should have known Stanley Sporkin wouldn’t just rubber-stamp the Microsoft settlement. When antitrust chief Anne Bingaman urged the bearish federal judge to approve it, Sporkin growled back: “Will the government give me a pen to sign, or can I use my own? I’ve got to have some role here.”

The first thing to know about Sporkin, 63, is that any time his role isn’t big enough to suit him he won’t hesitate to expand it. In the mid-1970s, when he headed the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he wasn’t content to police Wall Street by the book. He effectively rewrote it by going after companies that made illegal political payoffs and paid bribes to foreign governments-ethical lapses that his predecessors had overlooked.

The second thing to know is that he’s not afraid to upset very large apple carts. Richard Nixon’s reported gripe to his counsel John Dean about the too-vigilant “Jew boys” over in the sec was aimed partly at Sporkin, who was dogging the rogue financier Robert Vesco for an illegal $200,000 contribution to Nixon’s re-election campaign. Eventually Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell pressured William Casey, then sec chairman and Sporkin’s boss, to delay an investigation into Vesco’s contribution until after Election Day. When Casey tried to lean on Sporkin, the latter resisted and persuaded Casey to do the same-advice that may have spared Casey criminal charges later for obstruction of justice.

In 1981 Casey became head of the CIA and brought Sporkin along as general counsel. In that post he issued the famous legal finding that provided cover for the Reagan Administration’s secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. Since being appointed to the federal bench by Reagan in 1986, Sporkin has made himself a name as a man with little patience for malfeasance by Big Business. “He’s a rare judge who is sympathetic to the way the law intersects with consumer interests and investor interests,” says consumer activist Ralph Nader. It was Sporkin at his most sulfurous who dismissed the 1990 suit by which Charles Keating tried to regain control of Lincoln Savings & Loan, whose collapse cost taxpayers $2 billion. Bluntly accusing Keating of “looting” Lincoln funds, Sporkin also pointed the finger at the lawyers and accountants who had made it possible.

Three years ago, he ruled that the procedure used by the Senate to convict Federal Judge Alcee Hastings was unconstitutional. A few months later, the Supreme Court shot down his theory when it ruled in a similar case that judges had no power to oversee impeachments. Many antitrust lawyers expect his Microsoft ruling to get the same brush-off from a higher court. But if Sporkin was overreaching, he may also have been correct in his judgment that the original settlement let the computer giant off too easily. It won’t be the first time he’s proved that loose cannons can be straight shooters too.

–By Richard Lacayo. Reported by Tom Curry/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com