Antitrust challenge strikes out

Supreme Court denies Minnesota bid to reopen baseball's exemption

November 16, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Baseball's 77-year-old exemption from antitrust laws outlasted another challenge in the Supreme Court yesterday in a case stirred up by efforts to move the Twins out of Minnesota.

The justices gave no reason for turning down a request by the Minnesota attorney general to reopen the legal status of baseball under federal and state antitrust laws. No justices filed a dissent from the denial.

The state's appeal argued that Major League Baseball uses its antitrust exemption "as a sword to extort public stadium subsidies by threatening to move unless its demands for new stadia are met. There are no longer any sound legal or policy reasons for the exemption."

By turning down that appeal, the justices set no new legal precedent. It was a clear signal that the court has no interest in abandoning an exemption that dates to 1922.

Relocation of the Twins has been a real possibility for the past few years, and seems even more likely after the refusal by voters in St. Paul this month to approve a new stadium proposal.

The voters' rejection shifted the fate of the team back to Minneapolis, where the Twins would continue to play in the Metrodome unless relocation plans are made.

The state legislature also has refused to support a new stadium.

Minnesota's challenge to baseball's exemption had the support of 12 other states. The challengers contended that lower federal and state courts have begun to take different positions on the exemption, bringing new uncertainty over the legality of combined actions by the team owners.

The challenge to the Twins arose two years ago, after team owners agreed to sell the franchise to North Carolina businessman Donald C. Beaver. The sale ultimately fell through.

The state attorney general got interested because of reports that the major-league owners would refuse to allow any major-league team to play in Minnesota unless the league's demands for a new stadium were met. When state prosecutors sought a vast array of information from the league, the owners and the commissioner resisted, leading to the new test case.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a ruling last June, said that only the nation's highest court could change baseball's antitrust status. The last time the justices re-examined the exemption was in 1972, when they again upheld it.

Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said, "We're pleased the Court upheld what we believe was the correct decision."

Peter B. Hofrenning, Minnesota assistant attorney general, said the state was disappointed that the justices would not review the split among lower courts on the issue. He said the state has now closed its investigation of the Twins deal.

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