Aereo television streaming
Aereo television streaming (Courtesy of Aereo.)

The U.S. Supreme Court is worried about the cloud — cloud computing, that is. The justices heard arguments on April 22 on the upstart tech company Aereo Inc., which uses cloud-like technology to transmit over-the-air TV to Internet customers, without paying fees to broadcast networks. Aereo’s business model violates copyright law and “no one should shed a tear” if the court rules against it and puts it out of business, said Paul Clement of Bancroft, representing ABC and other broadcasters. But Justice Stephen Breyer and other justices worried that squelching Aereo would harm the growing cloud industry.

The hourlong argument in ABC v. Aereo followed its buildup as a life-or-death struggle between major networks whose lifeblood is license fees for their programming, and a new model that delivers programs to viewers without paying those fees. Media executives and lawyers filled the courtroom.

Depending on how the decision is written, Breyer said, “Are we somehow catching other things that would really change life and shouldn’t?”

Several justices seemed to agree with ABC that Aereo’s technology purposely skirts copyright laws. The statute gives copyright holders the exclusive right to “perform the copyrighted work publicly.” Aereo claims it does not violate that right because it transmits the shows individually on request to its Internet customers through thousands of dime-sized antennas.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told David Frederick, who argued for Aereo: “Your technological model is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with.” Roberts said that was not necessarily bad, adding, “You know, lawyers do that.” — Tony Mauro

FORFEITURE FIGHT OVER JET TAKES OFF

For more than two years, and with no immediate end in sight, federal prosecutors in Washington have fought to seize a $38 million Gulfstream jet from Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, vice president of Equatorial Guinea. The U.S. Department of Justice alleges Nguema acquired the jet through the proceeds of corruption.

His lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Foreman, DeGeurin & DeGeurin contend the government is overreaching — targeting a foreign official who hasn’t been charged with a crime.

At issue now is whether Nguema must sit for a deposition in the United States, as prosecutors insist. “If, after all, Nguema remains the Gulfstream jet’s beneficial owner, flying to the United States would by no means constitute an undue burden,” DOJ lawyers, ­including Stephen Gibbons, wrote in court papers on April 22. Gibbons urged U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras to reject Nguema’s push to resist the D.C. appearance.

Any in-person deposition, Nguema’s lawyers said last week, should take place in Equatorial Guinea. “The government’s apparent fears that E.G. is some sort of backwards nation without the capability to accommodate or host claimant’s deposition are unfounded,” Quinn associates Brian Wheeler and Heather Martin wrote. Nguema’s lawyers said DOJ “summarily rejected” conducting the deposition through written questions or by telephone or video conference. The government, Nguema’s attorneys said in their papers, “should be the party that bears any inconvenience created by the discovery it seeks.” — Mike Scarcella

JUSTICES LIMIT CHILD PORNOGRAPHY RESTITUTION

A divided U.S. Supreme Court on April 23 limited the amount of restitution due to child ­pornography victims whose images are viewed by thousands over the Internet. In Paroline v. United States, the 5-4 majority, overturning a $3.4 million award to a victim known by the pseudonym “Amy,” held that the amount of restitution must be tied to the role the convicted offender played in causing the victim’s injury. The federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 requires district courts to order defendants to pay child pornography victims “the full amount” of their losses.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected Amy’s argument that the statute made the restitution target in this case, Doyle Paroline, liable for the entire amount of her losses.

“Congress gave no indication that it intended its statute to be applied in the expansive manner the victim suggests, a manner contrary to the bedrock principle that restitution should reflect the consequences of the defendant’s own conduct, not the conduct of thousands of geographically and temporally distant offenders acting independently, and with whom the defendant had no contact,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also rejected Paroline’s argument that the government had to prove the amount of Amy’s losses but for Paroline’s role in the larger network of viewers of her images. The government conceded it could not prove that. Paroline’s approach would result in no restitution, he said, and would “render [the statute] a dead letter in child-pornography prosecutions of this type.” — Marcia Coyle

DEMS PUSH ‘MINERALS’ RULE

A dozen congressional Democrats are pushing the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to move on a rule requiring companies to report whether their goods contain “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite an April 14 federal appellate court ruling that cut some of the regulation.

In an April 21 letter, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington and nine other lawmakers told SEC chairwoman Mary Jo White the agency shouldn’t postpone the implementation of the rule, set to take effect on June 2.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld most of the regulation but struck a provision that would force businesses to publicly report whether a product is “conflict free.” The SEC has yet to indicate what it will do next. “With strong court decisions affirming the key components of the rule, no delay is warranted in the implementation of those requirements,” the lawmakers wrote. — Andrew Ramonas

NEW LEADER FOR PARDON OFFICE

The U.S. Department of Justice last week named Deborah Leff to lead the pardon office amid a push to review and expedite clemency applications related to drug crimes. Leff will take over the Office of the Pardon Attorney from Ronald Rodgers, who has been in the post since 2008 and was the subject of a critical report in December 2012 from the Justice Department’s inspector general. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who announced the personnel change, said Leff “has committed her career to the very basis of this initiative — achieving equal justice under law.” — Todd Ruger

THE BLACKWATER LEGAL TAB

Lawyers for a former Blackwater guard charged in a fatal shooting in Iraq want the federal government to pay their legal fees. Nicholas Slatten was one of several ex-Blackwater guards charged with killing and injuring Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

A federal trial judge dismissed the original indictment, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit revived the prosecution in 2011. The appeals court ruled earlier this month that the 2011 ruling didn’t apply to Slatten. Prosecutors are time-barred from refiling manslaughter charges against Slatten — they’re weighing whether to pursue a new ­indictment for first-degree murder, though — and he was dismissed from the case on April 23. A lead attorney for Slatten, Thomas Connolly of Wiltshire & Grannis, said he planned to seek legal fees from the government for the past two years of “frivolous litigation.” — Zoe Tillman

JUDGES HONOR PRO BONO WORK

Federal judges in Washington gathered April 23 to honor 30 law firms at which at least 40 percent of all lawyers performed at least 50 hours of pro bono service last year.

Twelve firms reported having 50 percent of more of all attorneys perform at least 50 hours of pro bono work. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan highlighted Arnold & Porter and Jenner & Block, where at least 65 percent of the firms’ ­lawyers met or exceeded the mark.

Sullivan spoke about the importance of ensuring ­litigants were on “equal footing” with their opponents in court. “It’s a constant struggle,” he said. “That’s why we’re here today, to thank you for your efforts.” This year’s event marked the 11th annual “40 at 50″ Judicial Pro Bono Recognition Breakfast. — Zoe Tillman