The long and winding journey of one of the most contested mergers in the history of the media business will take a major step toward its legal conclusion in December.
The D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals said judges will hear oral arguments in the United States v. AT&T beginning at 9:30AM ET on Thursday, December 6. Compared with the lower federal court trial, which stretched on for months in the springtime, the government’s latest bid to block the acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T will be a more compressed affair in terms of courtroom action.
Typically, appeals court arguments are made on both sides and the panel of three judges appointed to hear the appeal pose questions. No witnesses are called. Instead, the merits of the appeal and the defense against it are largely determined based on a series of legal briefs as well as the judges’ review of the lower court’s opinion.
If the DC Circuit sides with AT&T, the DOJ could still technically appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but would have to find suitable grounds.
In June, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon delivered a resounding victory for AT&T in the proposal it first made in October 2016 to by Time Warner, rejecting claims by the Department of Justice that the merger was anti-competitive. Within days of Leon’s ruling, the company announced the closing of the deal and the rebranding of Time Warner as WarnerMedia. The Turner Broadcasting assets, by mutual agreement, were kept in a separate silo of the company pending the outcome of the appeal.
The DOJ’s attempt to block the $79 billion deal came amid a swirl of speculation that President Donald Trump sicced regulators on the dealmakers as a form of red-tape retribution against CNN and its parent company.
Leon took the issue of White House interference off the table during the trial, putting the controversy on the back burner. A DOJ brief last week included a footnote contending that AT&T boss Randall Stephenson had proposed selling CNN in a bid to get DOJ approval, a contrast with his public insistence that he had never done so. DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim refused the overture, which AT&T partisans have described as more of a hypothetical, rhetorical thrust than a true offer.
The three judges who will hear the DOJ appeal have not yet been selected. Trial watchers long ago made note that the DC Circuit was Brett Kavanaugh’s home bench until he was confirmed for a Supreme Court seat earlier this month.