As Congress gears up for its biennial scrum over committee and subcommittee chairmanships, law firms are looking at how the fallout could affect intellectual property and antitrust issues.

Congressional retirements and leadership moves will reshape the landscape for legal issues on Capitol Hill starting next month. Although many committee assignments for next session are still up in the air, as well as which party will control the U.S. Senate, it’s clear that new legislators will be taking the helm of the two key subcommittees that set the agenda on IP and antitrust matters.

Those leadership changes are likely to affect how Congress tackles a number of related issues at the end of this year and during the 2013 session, including anti-piracy and cloud computing on the Internet, and assessing the patent system in the wake of the $1 billion jury decision in the Apple v. Samsung case regarding smartphone and tablet design.

The highest-profile change will involve the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who must abandon the post because of a six-year term limit on committee chairmanships first instituted in his party’s 1994 Contract with America. The top contender to take his place is Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a lawyer and veteran of intellectual property issues.

Goodlatte would leave behind the chairmanship of Judiciary’s subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet, which conducted hearings over the past year on patent disputes in the International Trade Commission, international intellectual property enforcement and new mobile phone technologies.

“He has generally been very good and very much interested in the IP and Internet issues,” said Makan Delrahim, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and former chief counsel for Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), of Goodlatte. “He has been on top of it for a long time.”

Goodlatte got his start in the late 1990s because AOL Inc. was in his district, Delrahim said. More recently, he has sponsored bills on Internet regulations, including the Stop Online Piracy Act. A Goodlatte chairmanship would not necessarily mean the full Judiciary Committee will focus more on intellectual property than before, Delrahim said. The committee has broad oversight of agencies like the Department of Justice, as well as administration of the federal court system. Goodlatte’s office did not return a request for comment.

It is unclear who would chair Goodlatte’s former intellectual property subcommittee. IP attorneys who watch Congress say several possible replacement names have come up, including committee veteran Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who recently introduced the Internet Radio Fairness Act. Sensenbrenner couldn’t be reached. A spokeswoman for Chaffetz said he is currently focusing only on his reelection campaign.

Republicans are likely to retain control of the House, most polls show. According to polling from RealClearPolitics, they may roughly maintain their current 241-194-seat edge over Democrats.

In the Senate, the retirement of Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) likewise will mean a new chairman for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights subcommittee, which spent the past two years on high-profile issues such as the future of online music with the Universal Music Group/EMI Merger, and the AT&T/T-Mobile USA merger.

Kohl had a reputation for staying out of the media spotlight. But the subcommittee would offer more junior senators “fertile ground for having a significant impact” on important issues that affect businesses as well as a large number of consumers, said Marla Grossman, an IP and technology lobbyist with the American Continental Group in Washington. “When the subcommittee has a hearing, a lot of times it is a packed room,” Grossman said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has been labeled as a front-runner for the spot, and current polls show her with a comfortable lead in her current re-election bid. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) have also been floated as potential replacements for Kohl. Klobuchar did not return a call for comment.

If Republicans retake control of the chamber, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) would likely chair the subcommittee, since he currently is the ranking minority member. In a brief interview, Lee declined to elaborate on what priorities he would pursue if he assumes the post.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is expected to remain as the Judiciary Committee chairman if Democrats retain control. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s ranking minority member, would be in line to be committee chairman if the Republicans assume control, but in that instance, according to a report from Politico, Grassley has not ruled out a bid to become Senate Finance Committee chairman. 

Todd Ruger can be contacted at truger@alm.com.