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Judge Sets Trial Date for DOJ Challenge of AT&T-Time Warner Merger

WASHINGTON — A federal judge set a March 19 start date for a trial in the Justice Department’s challenge to AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the trial would last an estimated three weeks, but a decision before April 22, the deadline that the two companies set to close the deal, “is not happening.” Even if the trial is over by that date, he said that it was unrealistic to expect that he would be able to render an opinion by that date.

AT&T had argued for a February trial, citing the need for a decision in the case before April 22, as now both companies will have to reach a new agreement on the proposed merger. The Justice Department asked that the trial start in May.

But Leon said the March 19 date was the only time in a packed court schedule, sandwiched between two other high-profile cases. He suggested that the companies extend their pact by 60 to 90 days.

Daniel Petrocelli, representing AT&T and Time Warner, told Leon that he would let his clients know about the court date and that they would soon “get back to the court on that.”

AT&T General Counsel David McAtee said in a statement that they “thank for the court for its deliberate and expeditious approach to this matter. We understand and appreciate how busy the court is, and we will promptly discuss the court’s post-trial schedule with Time Warner. We are committed to this transaction and look forward to presenting our case in March.”

Sitting in front of a wall of green marble and with a Tiffany lamp on his courtroom desk, Leon came across as a no-nonsense jurist, his Boston accent apparent at points as he outlined how the proceedings will be conducted going forward.

“This is not a normal case, from many perspectives,” Leon said to a packed courtroom, unusual for a status conference.

He urged the Justice Department to try to limit the number of attorneys it brought to the proceedings, as he wants to save spots for the public and the press. He also said that AT&T and Time Warner should do the same.

But he also warned that the tight time frame for a trial will mean that the legal teams won’t have time for vacations or even holidays. “People who are in are all in, including me,” he said.

“This is not going to be easy. This is going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice,” he said.

Craig Conrath, representing the Justice Department, said that the time frame is “aggressive,” but “we are used to it. We have done it.”

He also called on the attorneys to hold “pre-motion conferences,” warning that he did not want to see a “blizzard” of filings in the docket.

The Justice Department last month sued both companies, arguing that their proposed merger would give them the incentive to withhold cable channels or drive up prices to content to rivals. AT&T has argued that the proposed merger is the type of vertical merger that the DOJ has approved in the past, and that the department was departing from its own past precedent.

Makan Delrahim, the chief of the antitrust division, was present at the hearing, and briefly conversed with Petrocelli before the proceedings began.

Leon set another status hearing for Dec. 21.

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