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Meet the judge overseeing the trial to block the merger of AT & T with Time Warner

(Mark Lennihan / AP)

Justice Department attorneys and AT & T met Thursday in a small room in Washington to meet with the judge who will oversee their legal battle, one of the largest antitrust cases in decades. .

Judge Richard Leon lumbered into the room, two conference tables filled with lawyers for both parties gathered before him. In the front row of the audience sat Makan Delrahim, the antitrust chief of the Department of Justice.

"This is not a normal case," Leon said, speaking with traces of the accent he picked up during his childhood in South Natick, Massachusetts. "And I've had a series of great ones, as some of you know."

Leon is no stranger to high-profile cases. Appointed by George W. Bush in the US District Court. UU For the District of Columbia in 2002, the free judge has presided over controversial cases involving detainees at Guantánamo and the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency.

The parties responded to the judge in a light and respectful manner, but Leon repeatedly emphasized how it would be the responsibility of the parties to ensure that the process runs smoothly. "We can not take a blizzard of paper," he said. "I do not have 29 associates, this is not my only case"

León scheduled the trial for the $ 85 billion acquisition of Time Warner proposed by the telecommunications giant for March 19. Leon warned both parties not to wait for a final decision before April 22, a deadline that AT & T and Time Warner set as part of their deal. The two must close the deal by then or AT & T must pay Time Warner $ 500 million.

"This is not a case where the freedom of the people has been taken, but it is a case in which there is a lot at stake," said Leon. "The people inside are all included, including me."

Leon is known in the legal world as a nonconformist, with strong opinions and no clear political allegiance. Sometimes criticizes lawyers and favors bow ties. Your bustling cackle can be heard from a distance.

While it is not clear how he will apply his past thinking to this case, competition experts say he may have an idea of ​​how it might develop by looking at another telecommunications acquisition that the judge oversaw in 2011. In that Then, Comcast was trying to finalize a multi-million dollar deal to buy NBC Universal, a similar type of merger involving a content company and a content distributor. While the government did not move to block that deal, the Justice Department and Comcast had to appear before Leon and reach an agreement with certain conditions before the acquisition was completed.

In what antitrust attorneys considered at that time unusual movement, Leon expressed skepticism about the terms of the agreement; the judges who oversee such agreements generally approve them without protest. Leon did not agree with an arbitration process that would theoretically allow online content distributors to challenge Comcast about anti-competitive practices. Specifically, Leon doubted how well that arbitration mechanism would work for potentially disadvantaged Internet companies, and whether the government could enforce the terms of the agreement. Finally, Leon approved the deal. But not without being linked to the audit requirements.

Other experts pointed out how Leon handled the cases of the NSA and Guantanamo Bay as indicators of his independent thinking and contempt for cultivating popularity. In 2013, it put the Obama administration and the intelligence community on the defensive after it ruled that the daily compilation of virtually all telephone records of NSA Americans is probably unconstitutional. And in 2008, during Bush's last year in office, Leon was the first federal judge to order the release of the detainees from the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, after concluding that the government had not proven that five Algerian men they were enemy combatants under the definition of the government.

"Leon is a character," said a lawyer who asked not to be identified because that person practices at the DC circuit and can appear before Leon. "He tends to be very noisy and aggressive from the bench, he also tends to move cases more quickly than many district judges, to his credit."

"If Judge Leon asks you a question, you should be prepared to answer it frankly and directly, "said Charles Leeper, a partner in the Drinker Biddle law firm, who has appeared before Leon several times. "If he perceives evasion or dissimulation in his response, he is lost."

Before becoming a judge, Leon worked in private practice and in the Department of Justice. In the 1980s, Leon advised Rep. Richard B, Cheney during the Iran-contra investigation, which focused on the provision of weapons to Nicaraguan fighters with funds raised by the sale of arms to Iran. He was special advisor to the House Banking Committee during his research in Whitewater. He is an adjunct professor of law at George Washington University, as well as Georgetown Law, where he teaches a conference research class with John Podesta, former president of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. "I dismissed him during the Whitewater investigation, the summer of 1994," Leon told the Washingtonian last year. "What usually is not the basis of a friendship," Podesta said in a film about friendships of strange couples in the often polarized national capital.

And now he will oversee the monumental case AT & T and DOJ. For this legal battle, the burden falls on the Justice Department to convince him that the agreement will substantially reduce competition, experts say. AT & T will still try to present a positive case that the proposed merger will serve the public interest, according to Harry First, an antitrust specialist at the New York University School of Law. "And we want to put in front of someone the feeling that this should not stop, that it will benefit the consumers".

Mark Abueg, spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a statement "The Justice Department is waiting for its day in court on behalf of the American consumer."

AT & T said it appreciated that the court was expeditious about the time of the trial. "We are committed to this transaction and we look forward to presenting our case in March," said David McAtee, general counsel at AT & T.

Leon's chambers did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

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