As an attorney, regulator, and outspoken federal judge, Stanley Sporkin often embraced controversy in his 30 years of federal service. Sporkin first earned national recognition in the 1970s for his criminal investigations into corporate misbehavior as the director of enforcement at the securities and exchange commission (SEC). From 1981 to 1986, he was general counsel of the central intelligence agency (CIA). In 1986, President ronald reagan appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Sporkin attracted widespread comment for his passionate and idiosyncratic rulings on major cases involving business regulation and antitrust. Frequently, he found himself in conflict with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which often overruled him. A writer and speechmaker, Sporkin is widely known in law circles for his reformist views on legal ethics, sentencing guidelines, and the federal judiciary.
Sporkin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He earned his law degree from
Yale University in 1957, and worked in private practice before joining the SEC as a staff attorney in 1960.
The SEC, which was created in 1934 to oversee the securities laws that protect shareholders, had a quiet, even moribund reputation. This began to change in 1972, when an enforcement division was added. When Sporkin took charge of enforcement in 1974, the division vigorously pursued criminal cases against U.S. corporations. In particular, Sporkin prosecuted a series of cases involving the use of corporate funds for political contributions that had come to the surface during the watergate scandal; his investigations uncovered illegal domestic and foreign expenditures. Critics thought he had gone too far and exceeded the SEC's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, his eight-year tenure survived federal oversight review and helped set the stage for even tougher compliance practices in later years.
Sporkin left the SEC, in 1981, to serve as general counsel to the CIA. After five years, Reagan appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which hears major federal cases involving regulation. There he showed the same zeal he displayed at the SEC. In upholding the federal seizure of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association in 1990, he criticized the attorneys and accountants for the savings and loan with a widely quoted comment on their failure to blow the whistle on violations: "Where were the professionals … while these clearly improper transactions were being consummated?" In 1993, as part of a three-judge panel, he wrote the opinion dismissing the first amendment challenge of cable television companies to the constitutionality of federal rules requiring that they carry broadcast stations (Turner Broadcasting v. FCC, 819 F. Supp. 32 [D.D.C. 1993]).
Sporkin's most controversial decision came in 1995 in one of the most widely followed antitrust cases of the decade. Following a four-year investigation, the justice department had entered an agreement with computer software giant Microsoft, Inc., to reform licensing practices that the department said were monopolistic. Under provisions in the Tunney Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 16(e) ), Sporkin had the authority to review the consent decree to determine if it was in the public interest. In addition to criticizing Microsoft during the hearings, he took the rare step of allowing its competitors to file friend-of-the-court (amicus curiae) briefs anonymously in order to protect them from retaliation by Microsoft. Ultimately, Sporkin rejected the consent decree as being insufficient and ordered the Justice Department to expand its investigation (United States v. Microsoft Corp., 159 F.R.D. 318 [D.D.C. 1995]).
In a surprising move, both the Justice Department and Microsoft filed separate appeals. Not only did both parties win, but Sporkin was removed from the case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for apparent bias; the court then remanded the case to another judge with orders to approve the consent decree (United States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448 [D.C. Cir. 1995]).
In 1999, Sporkin assumed senior (semiretired) status, but retired as a federal judge in January 2000. He then became a partner at the Washington, D.C., office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, one of the world's largest law firms. Sporkin focused on issues concerning the SEC and corporate governance; he also acted as an arbitrator and a mediator.
"Plaintiffs have come before this Court, not because their freedom of speech is seriously threatened, but because their profits are; to dress up their complaint in First Amendment garb demeans the principles for which the it was designed to afford."
In addition to his uncompromising work as a lawyer and judge, Sporkin distinguished himself as a legal critic. He has written on the need for separate codes of ethical conduct for various disciplines within the law, urged for the adoption of multimedia presentations of evidence in courtrooms, and argued against what he sees as unfairness in the federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses.
Brinkley, Joel, and Steve Lohr. 2000. U.S. v. Microsoft: The Inside Story of the Landmark Case. New York: McGraw Hill.
Garza, Deborah A. 1995. "The Court of Appeals Sets Strict Limits on Tunney Act Review: The Microsoft Consent Decree." Antitrust 10 (fall).