The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments Tuesday on City of San Jose v. Commissioner of Baseball — or rather, on a key part of the city’s case that focuses on Major League Baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust law.
San Jose officials filed the suit last year in an attempt to force major league owners to let the Oakland A’s relocate to the South Bay. That move has been blocked for five years by the San Francisco Giants, the franchise that holds baseball’s territorial rights to San Jose and the rest of Santa Clara County.
Today’s action is an appeal of a lower court’s dismissal of most of San Jose’s case. A three-judge panel will hear about 20 minutes of oral argument from each side. The judges aren’t expected to issue a ruling until sometime this fall, and either side might appeal their decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tuesday’s proceedings will be streamed live here.
In advance of the hearing, I spoke with Nathaniel Grow, a law professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in sports law and has written a book on the 1922 Supreme Court ruling that has protected the major leagues from antitrust actions in the past. Grow says the law is not on San Jose’s side.
“You’ve got not only three Supreme Court decisions that are binding precedents, but the 9th Circuit has their own binding precedent from the 1970s, saying that this very same issue, relocation of franchises, is covered by baseball’s antitrust exemption. San Jose has to get out of that and come up with some way to convince the judges on the 9th Circuit to ignore all that and rule in their favor. Whereas Major League Baseball’s case is much cleaner. All they have to do is say, ‘Look, this is what the law is, this is how it applies’ — there really isn’t a lot of discretion for the appellate court to exercise its judgment here.”
Grow says the last time that Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption came before the Supreme Court was in the 1970s.
“And there the Supreme Court said, ‘You know, Congress has known about this for 50 years at this point. They’ve thought about acting, they’ve never acted, so it’s not our place to touch it now. That would be unfair to Major League Baseball to reverse this protection that they’ve been relying on for five decades.’ And I think if this case were to get to the Supreme Court level, that’d be the argument — 40 years later, is it even less fair to MLB to act, or is Congress being so negligent that it’s time for the court to step in?”
Grow rates San Jose’s chances of succeeding at the 9th Circuit at less than 10 percent, and he thinks the high court would probably decline to hear an appeal:
“But if the Supreme Court does take the case, then I think that’s a really bad sign for Major League Baseball. I don’t see the court wading into this highly contentious, controversial issue for a fourth time only to issue what is sure to be a highly criticized opinion affirming baseball’s antitrust exemption. So, if the Supreme Court agrees to take the case, San Jose would likely win one way or another, either through a settlement or a judicial decision.”
I asked Grow if San Jose’s argument — that the A’s want to move, and only MLB’s intransigence is stopping them — was damaged when the A’s owners signed a 10-year lease extension at the Oakland Coliseum last week and said they’re talking with architects and looking at sites for a new ballpark in Oakland.
He says it certainly doesn’t help, in part because it casts doubt on San Jose’s standing to bring a suit — since they can’t claim damages for losing a baseball team that they might have never had:
“In the past, courts have often said unless a team is 100 percent contractually committed to moving, there is no case yet. And that would be the worst possible outcome for San Jose — for the 9th Circuit to rule that there’s no standing here. If the 9th Circuit affirms the dismissal on ‘no standing’ grounds, there’s very, very, very little chance the Supreme Court would review that.”
Given that the court won’t be ruling for a few months, I asked Grow what clues might we get from the oral arguments? He cautioned against trying to read too much into questions from the bench:
“Especially here, where the city faces such a strong uphill climb to get over those Supreme Court precedents. The judges will undoubtedly ask some pointed questions of Major League Baseball, because they have to treat both sides a little critically in order to be fair. But if you started to get the sense that at least two of the three judges are willing to disregard precedent — or if they start to suggest the precedents are so outdated that it isn’t binding any more — that’s the type of language that might get San Jose a victory here. It’s much more likely, though, that the judges are critical of San Jose’s case, and that indicates they’re likely to rule for Major League Baseball.”