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Microsoft surprise: Old nemesis rejoins antitrust fight as lawyer for states

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a courtroom fight that has had its share of odd twists and turns, Microsoft Corp. has gotten another shocker: A legal nemesis rejoined the case for the nine states seeking tougher antitrust sanctions against the computer software maker.

Stephen D. Houck, former chief of the antitrust bureau for the New York attorney general's office, clearly threw Microsoft's lawyer off balance when he showed up to question one of the company's top executives last month, according to transcripts released Monday under a court order.

``I find your presence here bizarre, frankly,'' Microsoft lawyer Steven L. Holley told Houck, who now practices with a private firm in New York. Holley demanded to know whether New York officials _ who have agreed with the Justice Department to settle the Microsoft case _ knew about his present role in the trial, and he insisted Houck check to make sure his new law firm doesn't represent Microsoft competitors.

Houck said New York knew all about his new role, and he didn't believe his firm represented any Microsoft rivals. But Houck bluntly refused to run a computer check of the firm's clients, as Holley demanded.

``No, I'm not going to do it,'' Houck said.

``Well, then, you'll take the risk of proceeding,'' Holley replied. The exchange was tense enough that it rattled Houck, who took a 10-minute break from questioning Jim Allchin, Microsoft's top Windows executive.

``I've lost my train of thought,'' Houck said.

Houck was the top courtroom lawyer for all the states earlier in the landmark case and helped aggressively question Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates over two days in 1998 before the trial started. Holley was another bulldog of a lawyer, best known for arguing in court with the government's top technical expert about whether Microsoft could remove its Internet browser software from the Windows operating system.

Houck and Holley hadn't met in a courtroom setting since 1999, so the Feb. 13 deposition of Allchin was a reunion for the rival lawyers. But they disproved the adage about absence making the heart grow fonder, sniping at each other through eight hours of questioning Allchin over arcane technology concepts.

Lawyers in high-stakes cases often adopt tough demeanors, but these two needled each other throughout the deposition. The lawyers separately questioning Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, by comparison, seemed positively courteous toward each other.

Houck at one point accused Holley of coaching Allchin by objecting to his questions after the executive already had answered them. Later, after an unusually heated interjection, Houck told the Allchin: ``Let me apologize on your counsel's behalf for the interruption.''

Holley tossed his own barbs at Houck. When Houck pressed Allchin about whether he expected to testify later in court, Allchin said he wasn't sure. ``Oh, be so much fun,'' Holley said.

Toward the end of the day, Allchin launched into a lengthy attack on a proposal by the states Houck represents to require Microsoft to strip out some Windows features at the request of computer makers. Allchin seemed stunned when Houck invited him to continue arguing.

``Really?'' Allchin says.

Holley compared the situation to a popular British comedy skit in which a knight insists on defending a footbridge, even as his attackers hack off his limbs: ``It's reminiscent of that scene in 'Monty Python' where he says, 'Come at me, you know, I've only got one arm left.'''
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