Broadband: No ruling in Supreme Court hearing

There was no ruling — and no fireworks — as attorneys in the protracted Idaho Education Network lawsuit had their day before the Idaho Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Jim Jones gave no indication about when the court might rule, again, on the dispute over the broadband contract.

The Idaho Education Network is defunct — the state has stopped funding the statewide high-school broadband system, and school districts now purchase high-speed Internet on their own. But the legal dispute lingers — and the state and Internet vendors could have tens of millions of dollars riding on the outcome in Supreme Court.

That’s why attorneys for the state and three Internet vendors argued before the state’s highest court Wednesday afternoon — before a half-empty courtroom and a small audience of corporate officials and state officials.

The hour-long oral arguments yielded no big surprises, as the competing parties adhered to the points made in court filings. (To read more about the legal arguments, here’s a link to our Jan. 25 article.)

  • The state’s hired outside attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court to uphold the network’s contract — voided in November 2014 by Ada County District Judge Patrick Owen. Steven Schossberger, argued that the state is not trying to “breathe life” into a failed broadband project. Instead, he argued that the state might be forced to write off — or give back — $25 million in federally administered payments, if the Supreme Court sides with Owen. Schossberger works for the Boise law firm Hawley Troxell, which has received more than $1 million for arguing the case.
  • Syringa Networks, an Idaho-based Internet provider, restated the arguments that prevailed in Owen’s court. Syringa maintains that amendments to the contract rendered the agreement null and void, and eliminated any competition between the state’s vendors, Education Networks of America and Qwest Communications. David Lombardi, a Boise attorney representing Syringa, said Owen’s ruling compels the state to collect $29.7 million it had advanced to the vendors under an illegal contract.
  • Qwest, now known as CenturyLink, did not receive any advance money for the network, said Steven Perfrement, a Denver-based attorney for the company. Every dollar the company received was for work requested by the state, and used by the state.
  • ENA, the main vendor on the network, argued that it should no longer be embroiled in the case. ENA cites a previous Supreme Court ruling — prior to Owen’s decision, that dismissed the vendor from the case. “Once this court dismisses a party, it stays dismissed,” said Robert Patterson, a Nashville, Tenn., attorney representing ENA.

On several occasions, Jones interrupted oral arguments with a few pointed questions and observations.

At one point, Jones asked Lombardi why his client is continuing with the six-year legal battle. “What do you get out of this lawsuit?”

Lombardi said Owen’s ruling has allowed the company to compete for a share of work with school districts and state agencies. “Syringa has gotten some benefit as a consequence of this.”

Jones questioned the state’s claim that Syringa has no right to challenge the Idaho Education Network agreement — since the company worked as a network subcontractor. When Syringa agreed to work under the contract, Schossberger said, it effectively gave up its avenue of appeal. Schossberger also challenged Syringa’s attempt to minimize subcontract work worth $1.4 million.

“This isn’t chump change,” he said.