The US Court of Appeals ruled to return Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's decision in the government's antitrust case against Microsoft to a lower court yesterday.

The court also ruled that another judge should handle the case. It "vacated" - or cancelled - Jackson's remedy of breaking up the company, but upheld the finding that Microsoft illegally tried to maintain a monopoly in operating systems.

The ruling said in part: "We vacate the Final Judgment on remedies, because the trial judge engaged in impermissible ex parte contacts by holding secret interviews with members of the media, and made numerous offensive comments about Microsoft officials in public statements outside of the courtroom, giving rise to an appearance of partiality."

Split In June of last year, Jackson ordered the break-up of Microsoft into two separate companies, one focused on operating systems and the other on software applications. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and 17 of 19 state attorneys general that are plaintiffs in the case had recommended that ruling. Jackson further ordered a variety of behavioural remedies meant to curb, according to the government allegations, Microsoft's illegal use of its operating-system monopoly to further its dominance in IT. The break-up and remedies were "stayed" while the appeals process continues.

The judge's harshest sentiments were not delivered in court. In public speeches and interviews, Jackson expressed his views on the case regarding both the DOJ and Microsoft attorneys and personnel. He likened Microsoft's Bill Gates to Napoleon.

In response, Microsoft urged the appeals court to consider the judge's remarks. That court rebuked Jackson for offering his thoughts on the case. If all judges spoke publicly "the system would be a sham", Chief Judge Harry Edwards said during two days of oral arguments before the appeals court.

During the arguments, Edwards also had a sharp exchange with Jeffrey Minear, an attorney from the Office of the Solicitor General defending the break-up order, casting doubt on the government's contention that Microsoft exhibited monopolistic, anticompetitive behaviour against Web browser developer Netscape.