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Law Ace John Keker to Defend MLB in San Jose Suit

San Jose Mercury News

Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that it has hired prominent San Francisco lawyer John W. Keker to lead its defense against the antitrust lawsuit San Jose filed last month.

The lawsuit, filed on the city's behalf by another well-known lawyer, Joseph Cotchett of Burlingame, accuses the league of violating federal laws that bar monopolies to foster business competition by blocking the Oakland A's efforts to build a new San Jose ballpark. The San Francisco Giants oppose an A's move to San Jose, citing the team's MLB-backed territorial rights to the city.

"Keker specializes in complex antitrust, commercial and intellectual property cases and securities cases," MLB said in a news statement Wednesday, which added that he is "regarded as one of the country's top trial lawyers."

"I'm honored to do it and look forward to getting the case dismissed -- I hope quickly," Keker said in an interview.

The announcement sets up a courtroom battle between two of the nation's most highly regarded lawyers. Keker is famous for having prosecuted Oliver North in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. Cotchett made his name suing on behalf of investors bilked by 1980s financier Charles Keating Jr.

Both lawyers come from military backgrounds: Keker is a former Marine infantry platoon leader who earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in Vietnam, and Cotchett was an Army Special Forces Green Beret paratrooper.

"I admire Joe and think he's a great lawyer," Keker said. "I think he's dead wrong about this one, but I do admire and like him."

A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, Keker cofounded his firm, now Keker & Van Nest, in 1978. His clients have included disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, American Honda Motor Co., search giant Google, ratings agency Standard & Poor's, and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the union that represents big-league ballplayers.

Keker also defended lawyer Steven Donziger from a racketeering case brought by Chevron after Donziger helped Ecuadorean citizens win a record $18 billion judgment against Chevron over pollution in their country. Keker moved to withdraw in May, arguing that a federal court in New York had turned the case into a "Dickensian farce" by allowing Chevron's "scorched-earth" legal strategy of an "endless drumbeat of motions" to drive up legal costs beyond Donziger's ability to pay them.

North, a former Marine lieutenant colonel working for the National Security Council under the Reagan administration, was accused of obstructing congressional inquiries into the secret sale of weapons to Iran and diversion of proceeds to support the Contra rebels fighting the communist Nicaraguan government. Keker won felony convictions in 1989 against North for his role, though they later were overturned on appeal.

In the MLBPA case, Keker and his firm represented players who were swept up in the federal investigation of Bay Area Lab Cooperative, or BALCO, for alleged steroid distribution. They won a 2010 ruling that the government had violated the players' Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches when agents seized their drug testing records and urine samples.

Keker's law firm has handled a host of high-profile antitrust cases. They defended chipmaker Intel from antitrust allegations brought by New York, and Visa from antitrust suits by credit card rivals Discover and American Express.

In the MLB case, San Jose argues other professional sports leagues operate under antitrust law. But Keker notes a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, upheld twice since and unchanged by congressional action, exempting organized baseball from federal antitrust law.

"I've done a lot of antitrust cases," Keker said. "But none for a client who is, with respect to location of teams, exempt from antitrust laws, which is what we'll be pointing out to the judge."