Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The first time U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in Washington heard an antitrust challenge to an AT&T Inc. deal, she said her hands were tied in assessing a smaller competitor’s objection to the proposed acquisition.
Mid-Tex Cellular Ltd., a rural cellular company based in DeLeon, Texas, argued that the $4.5 billion takeover of Dobson Communications Corp. threatened its business and that the Justice Department wasn’t treating the “entire market” consistently when it agreed to settle the case.
In a ruling approving the deal, Huvelle said that while Mid-Tex may be correct, under the law the government had “broad discretion” to settle the case with Dallas-based AT&T “within the reaches” of the public interest.
After the purchase, Mid-Tex lost the roaming revenue it received from its former partner, AT&T, and could no longer afford to provide services in its rural territory, said Carri Bennet, a Bethesda, Maryland telecommunications lawyer who represented Mid-Tex. The company was sold in 2009.
“Exactly what they warned about happened,” she said. “Mid-Tex suffered a severe demise because of AT&T.”
Huvelle won’t have the same constraints when she decides whether to block AT&T’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile USA Inc., said Allen Grunes, an antitrust lawyer at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP in Washington, because this time, there isn’t an agreement between the parties.
In the current case, where the Justice Department is suing to stop the merger, Huvelle must independently assess the government’s claim that the combination of the country’s second- and fourth-largest wireless carriers would violate antitrust law and “substantially lessen” competition.
Her analysis may include a closer look at what smaller carriers are saying, said Grunes, a former trial attorney in the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
“You’ve got people here in a similar position and you know what they say,” he said. “The past is prologue.”
Huvelle, 63, has handled about 10 antitrust matters since joining the federal bench in 1999, according to court filings. Most of those involved reviewing consent decrees like the earlier AT&T acquisition of Dobson.
In the one such case that went to trial -- the Justice Department’s bid to halt SunGard Data Systems Inc.’s $825 million acquisition of Comdisco Inc.’s computer disaster- recovery business -- Huvelle ruled against the government. That led some lawyers to conclude she’ll do the same with AT&T.
“This is not a good selection for the antitrust division,” said David Balto, a Washington antitrust lawyer who represented SunGard, of Huvelle’s assignment to the case.
Huvelle was critical of the evidence the government used in the SunGard case, specifically its sampling of customers who would be negatively affected by the deal, he said.
Regarding AT&T’s proposed deal to buy T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG, Balto said the government will have to show why cellular services offered by companies such as Boost Mobile LLC and Cricket Wireless aren’t adequate alternatives for customers who can’t afford the prices of the three big telecom companies that would be left if AT&T absorbed T-Mobile.
“It’s easy for the Department of Justice to speak in generalities about vulnerable customers,” Balto said. “But generalities will not fly with her.”
Huvelle received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wellesley College in 1970 and a master’s degree in city planning from Yale University’s school of architecture in 1972. She received her law degree from Boston College in 1975.
Huvelle began her legal career in 1977 as a litigator at Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington. There, she handled civil and criminal cases in federal and state courts, taking part in seven jury trials during 13 years with the firm.
In a criminal tax case, she defended boxing promoter Don King, who was acquitted following a jury trial in 1985. She represented General Electric Co. in two cases where one of its units was accused of civil rights violations while running a youth detention centers in Rhode Island. The cases settled after Huvelle left the firm.
Huvelle was appointed to the local District of Columbia Superior Court by U.S. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican. On that court, she handled a variety of civil, criminal and family law cases. In 1999, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, selected her for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
More than two decades after leaving Williams & Connolly, Huvelle still removes herself from any cases involving the law firm, said Robert Barnett, a senior partner there. She does the same with Covington & Burling, the law firm where her husband Jeffrey is partner, according to documents filed with the U.S. Senate.
Huvelle is known for moving quickly through the cases assigned to her court. She completes almost all her civil actions within three years and has no motions pending before her for more than six months, according to records filed with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Just six days after the AT&T-T-Mobile lawsuit was filed in her court, Huvelle set a hearing for Sept. 21 and told the parties to be prepared to discuss settlement options.
“She is an efficient judicial machine,” said Stephen Axinn of Axinn Veltrop Harkrider LLP, who also represented SunGard in the 2001 antitrust case. Axinn has represented Bloomberg LP.
The SunGard case was tried and decided in less than a month, in part because there was a bankruptcy looming in the background of the merger. The AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile is set to close by March 20, 2012, and AT&T has said it will ask Huvelle for an expedited handling of the case.
“She’ll make everybody work nights and weekends to get it done quickly, then she’ll rule quickly because that’s her style,” Axinn said.
The case is U.S. v. AT&T Inc., 11-01560, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
--Editors: Patrick Oster, David E. Rovella
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