Harold Greene

Jube Shiver Jr. covers telecommunications policy and regulation for The Times

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?

A: It's a complicated area . . . . I don't think the law has worked too well as a practical matter, but I have always supported the legislation. I think national policy should be enacted by Congress--not judges. The basic thought of the [AT&T; and U.S. Justice Department consent] decree was to sever local phone service from long-distance service. It was seen as impractical and expensive to have two sets of wires coming into the home to provide local phone service . . . . But the regional Bell telephone companies [who provide local service] are not letting anybody into their markets. The way it has worked out, basically nobody is in the local telephone business today except the same old Baby Bells. I don't think time will necessarily solve the problem. But maybe the AT&T; deal to buy [cable giant] TCI will provide some serious local phone competition.

Q: Yet, as the Baby Bell phone companies you created grow up, a host of new communications technologies have emerged, including wireless phones, high-speed Internet access and digital cable-TV systems. Do you use any of the new technologies? Do you surf the Internet?

A: I have a cell phone that I use occasionally. That's about all I have. I don't surf the Internet.

Q: One concern you had about the new telecommunications law was that it might increase concentration of media ownership. Have those concerns been borne out?

A: Yes. The way they [telecommunications companies] are buying each other up, I would not be surprised if there were fewer then five companies providing phone service in the country a few years from now. We do have all these new kinds of communications services--like the Internet and cable TV--so there are more ways to get around the local telephone monopoly than during the time of the consent decree. But the concentration of media is a concern because you don't want all of these things to end up in the hands of a few companies.

Q: Although many enjoy the benefits of the telecommunications revolution, modern phone technology remains beyond the financial reach of some of the poor, even middle-class people living in rural areas that are costly to wire. Does the phone industry have an obligation to provide affordable phone service?

A: Basic phone service should be available everywhere. And so far, it appears it hasn't been eliminated anywhere as far as I know. But phone companies say they can't afford to continue to provide it. I think there is a lack of concern about this issue. Phone service is affordable today--in grocery stores, you have to pay more for milk, meat and bread than you do for basic monthly phone service in most places. But we now live in an information age. And it would be disastrous if people were cut off from information just because they are poor.

Q: You mention the information age. With computers and the Internet emerging as a major force in communications, there's been speculation that U.S. District Court Judge Ronald M. Whyte, who is overseeing a contract dispute between Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems over the Java computer language, might eventually play as pivotal role in that booming industry as you played in telecommunications. Is there any advice you can give a fellow jurist?

A: The only advice I would give anybody is to make sure that any case that might emerge goes to trial quickly. That's most important in the information field, which moves so rapidly along. In the AT&T; case, it was felt that judges were not capable of dealing with major antitrust issues because they were too complicated and took too long to sort out. But the AT&T; trial I presided over took only 11 months. The IBM case, by comparison, never did get to a final conclusion. I don't know that industry suffered as a consequence of the lengthy IBM trial (the case was filed in 1969, but dropped in 1982), but the fact of the matter is that IBM lost a lot of ground as a result of the time it took [to litigate with the government].

Q: You've often complained that journalists focus too much on your role as the judge who presided over the breakup of AT&T.; You've also had a hand in a number of important legal landmarks. You helped write the Voting Rights Act as a Justice Department lawyer and you reorganized the local court system here.

A: That's true. I don't want to be remembered as only having worked on the AT&T; case. I reorganized the District of Columbia court system and brought it into the 20th century by getting court-appointed lawyers paid for the work that they did. Before the reforms, court-appointed lawyers often pleaded everybody guilty because it was quicker and easier since they weren't getting paid for their work.

Q: But that AT&T; case must certainly be considered a high point in your career. How do you feel about being remembered as Pa Bell, the man who broke up Ma Bell?

A: Oh, I didn't dislike the experience. But presiding over that case was a lot like climbing Mt. Everest: You work hard to get on top of it. You enjoy the view once you're there. But once you get off, you know you are never going to try to do it again.*

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