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Los Angeles Times Interview

Harold Greene

A Trustbusting Judge Takes Stock of an Age of Supermergers

September 06, 1998|Jube Shiver Jr. | Jube Shiver Jr. covers telecommunications policy and regulation for The Times

WASHINGTON — The artifacts decorating the office of Judge Harold H. Greene do not seem to be those of the man who spent more than a decade supervising one of the largest antitrust cases in U.S. history: the 1984 breakup of AT&T. Greene, who says he remains amazed at how celebrated his showdown with Ma Bell has become, has filled his office with photos and memorabilia of his accomplishments before the AT&T case.

Now, as a celebrated new antitrust trial, the United States vs. Microsoft Corp., prepares to unfold just a few doors away from Greene's office in U.S. District Court in Washington, he says he feels no particular yearning to return to the epicenter of antitrust litigation. "I don't miss it all that much," said Greene.

Instead, Greene, who has settled into senior status, with a reduced workload and the occasional public appearance that comes of being something of a judicial celebrity, is making peace with himself outside the antitrust battlefield. His office decor reflects the path he has blazed as a lawyer and judge.

In one corner, there is a framed page of the first draft of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Greene helped write as a Justice Department lawyer in the early 1960s. In another corner, there is a 1963 photograph of Greene and two other Justice Department officials huddling at a conference table with Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Greene says he got to know Kennedy while working at the Justice Department and helped prepare the former attorney general for his sole appearance before the Supreme Court in the early 1960s. Kennedy argued a case on congressional district apportionment. "He was a good lawyer," Greene recalled admiringly, adding that Kennedy "did a damn good job" in his court appearance.

Many legal experts hold the same assessment of Greene, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Greene inherited the AT&T case a few days after being sworn in as a federal judge. The landmark case was so massive that many legal experts said it was too big for a single court. But Greene, who takes pride in his knack for organization, was confident he was up to the job. He presided over a surprisingly short 11-month trial and for another decade spent as much as a quarter of his time doggedly--some say highhandedly--supervising a consent decree that initially broke up AT&T and established seven regional Bell telephone companies for local phone service.

A dozen years after the decree took effect on Jan. 1, 1984, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which aimed at further deregulating the telephone industry. Though the act opened local phone monopolies to greater competition, critics complain it also has encouraged too much consolidation and done little to cut local phone rates or improve service. They point to a string of megamergers in which phone companies have gobbled each other up so fast that, just two years after telecommunications reform, only five of the original Baby Bells remain independent. Pending acquisitions could reduce that to four.

Greene's principal concession to the telecommunications juggernaut unleashed by his work is that he has exchanged his rotary phone for a speed-dial model. He even makes occasional calls from his cellular phone.

Looking relaxed in shirt sleeves and tie, and displaying unusual candor for a federal judge, Greene sat down for an interview recently amid a flurry of new telephone megadeals, shortly before the Microsoft case was set to go to trial.

Question: You are the man who ended the old AT&T telephone monopoly. Did you foresee the almost bewildering advance in communications technology emerging from your handiwork?

Answer: I don't know if handiwork is the right word. The advent of computers has brought about great strides in technology, apart from advances that arose because of decisions I made in the AT&T case . . . . It was an important case but there are other things that have had a great impact.

Q: Indeed, two years ago you supported the sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was supposed to promote more phone competition by deregulating the industry. But critics say the law has fueled little price cutting and instead has simply encouraged more megamergers, like the proposed $52 billion merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE. How well do you think the law has worked?

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