The public investment

There’s a remarkable subtext to the Thursday decision by Seattle Judge Greg Canova in the case of the warring Seattle dailies: That not only the owners of those newspapers have a legitimate stake in the outcome.

This is not the norm in business litigation, when one business sues another and a court has to decide. The usual theory is that, unless a public (governmental) organization is involved in the case, the matter is fundamentally simply between the two parties. The workings of the court and the documents submitted to it ordinarily are public, but that’s mainly because a public entity – the court – is involved as decision-maker. If amazon.com were to sue Microsoft, where would be the public’s seat at the table? Probably nowhere.

But would that be right? Millions of people have a major stake in both corporations’ activities. Maybe the public, or some version of it, should be at the table too.

Judge Canova might or might not streatch the point that far. But something similar seemed to underlie his decision.

The situation is that Seattle’s two daily newspapers, the Times and the Post-Intelligencer, are locked in a joint operating agreement; the owners of the Times want to end the agreement, while the owners of the P-I say that if it is ended, their newspaper might die. The battle, stretching over years already, has been intense. A month ago they announced they had agreed to submit the case to an arbitrator who would make a decision in a year or so, and that they would abide by it. (The proceedings leading up to the decision would be closed, though the decision itself and its rationale would be released.) They asked Canova to put the legal case on ice until the arbitrator acts.

Canova refused. He pointed out that the litigation also had a third party, the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town (a group of newspaper employees), and that it had an interest in the case too. It too had a right to litigate, he suggested. His reasoning suggested that interests beyond those of the business owners are at stake.

An opinion to review, and consider.

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