SAN FRANCISCO -- San Jose's antitrust case against Major League Baseball seemed to absorb a good old-fashioned shellacking on Tuesday.

During an hour of legal arguments, a three-judge 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel appeared disinclined to back San Jose's argument that baseball's refusal to let the Oakland A's move to the South Bay violates federal antitrust laws.

Most important, the judges appeared unlikely to strip baseball of its nearly century-old antitrust exemption, which undercuts San Jose's central legal justification for trying to force MLB's hand.

At least two members of the court panel, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Judge Richard Clifton, even questioned whether San Jose can show any economic harm from the league's refusal to support an A's move to a proposed ballpark in downtown San Jose.

"Why isn't the city just sort of a bystander?" Kozinski asked San Jose lawyer Phil Gregory at one point.

The 9th Circuit is reviewing San Jose's bid to revive its antitrust case against MLB. The city has appealed a federal judge's ruling last year finding that U.S. Supreme Court precedent upholding the league's antitrust exemption forecloses the lawsuit.

The city sued two years ago, claiming MLB had interfered with its business deal with the A's to build a San Jose ballpark under an option agreement for the team to buy land downtown.

The San Francisco Giants have blocked the A's move, asserting territorial rights to the South Bay. The league has refused to upend the rights claim through a vote, prompting San Jose city leaders to turn to the courts.


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A's owner Lew Wolff had pushed for a move to San Jose but recently signed a 10-year lease extension at aging O. Co Coliseum that does include an opt-out clause. Oakland and San Jose continue to vie for the right to be the A's long-term stadium solution.

Based on Tuesday's court hearing, it does not appear the 9th Circuit will give San Jose a win in the legal system.

In addition to Supreme Court rulings backing baseball's antitrust immunity, Clifton and Kozinski noted that the 9th Circuit also upheld the exemption in a 1974 decision tossing a lawsuit by minor league baseball in Portland over plans to expand MLB in San Diego and Seattle.

"It's terse, but it's there," Clifton noted.

Joseph Cotchett, San Jose's lead attorney, urged the court to distinguish San Jose's case, saying the legal precedent does not apply to interference with relocation of teams.

Outside court, Cotchett pledged to take the case to the Supreme Court if the 9th Circuit sides with MLB.

John Keker, MLB's attorney, declined to comment, but he underwent gentle questioning from the judges.

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz