The merger of AT&T and Time Warner (Entertainment) is safe.
A federal appeals court in Washington handed the U.S. Department of Justice its worst defeat in 40 years as federal regulators fought to oppose a huge “vertical” merger among two unrelated companies.
In a one page, two-sentence ruling, a three judge panel affirmed the lower District of Columbia Circuit Court decision that approved the $80 billion merger without conditions. In the lower court, Judge Richard Leon ruled there was no evidence AT&T would use the merger to unfairly restrict competition, a decision that was scorned by Justice Department lawyers and consumer groups, both claiming the merger would allow AT&T to raise prices and restrict or impede competitors’ access to AT&T-owned networks.
The Justice Department and its legal team seemed to repeatedly irritate Judge Leon in the lower court during arguments in 2018, making it an increasingly uphill battle for the anti-merger side to win.
Unsealed transcripts of confidential bench conferences with the attorneys arguing the case, made public in August 2018, showed Department of Justice lawyers repeatedly losing rulings:
- Judge Leon complained that the Justice Department used younger lawyers to question top company executives, leading to this remarkable concession by DoJ Attorney Craig Conrath: “I want to tell you that we’ve listened very carefully and appreciate your comments, and over the course of this week and really the rest of the trial, you’ll be seeing more very gray hair, your honor.”
- Leon grew bored with testimony from Cox Communications that suggested Cox would be forced to pay more for access to Turner Networks. Leon told the Cox executive to leave the stand and demanded to know “why is this witness here?”
- Leon limited what Justice lawyers could question AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson about regarding AT&T’s submissions to the FCC.
- Justice Department lawyer Eric Walsh received especially harsh treatment by Judge Leon after the Justice lawyer tried to question a Turner executive about remarks made in an on-air interview with CNBC in 2016. Leon told Walsh he already ruled that question out of order and warned, “don’t pull that kind of crap again in this courtroom.”
During the trial, AT&T managed to slip in the fact one of its lawyers was making a generous contribution towards the unveiling of an official portrait of Judge Leon, while oddly suggesting the contribution was totally anonymous.
“One of our lawyers on our team was asked to make an anonymous contribution to a fund for the unveiling of your portrait,” AT&T lawyer Daniel Petrocelli told the judge. “He would like to do so and I cleared it with Mr. Conrath, but it’s totally anonymous.”
Leon responded he had no problem with that, claiming “I don’t even know who gives anything.”
AT&T also attempted to argue that the Justice Department case against the merger was prompted by public objections to the merger by President Trump, who promised to block the deal if he won the presidency. That clearly will not happen any longer, and it is unlikely the Justice Department will make any further efforts to block the deal.
AT&T received initial approval of its merger back in June and almost immediately proceeded integrating the two companies as if the Justice Department appeal did not exist. The Justice Department can still attempt to appeal today’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, something AT&T hopes the DoJ will not attempt.
“While we respect the important role that the U.S. Department of Justice plays in the merger review process, we trust that today’s unanimous decision from the D.C. Circuit will end this litigation,” AT&T said in a statement.
Thanks to Phillip Dampier (see source)