By his own account, U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene is a reluctant czar of the telephone industry. But he remains a czar, nonetheless, and some of the "subjects" are getting restless.
A year after the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Greene maintains a firm hold over key aspects of the industry.
Legal requests continue to pour into his Washington court chambers from the divested regional telephone companies seeking permission to enter a variety of new businesses; AT&T's long-distance rivals continue to complain about unfair treatment, and Greene keeps on handing down rulings that have a critical impact on the future of the industry.
Greene's role is drawing criticism from some telecommunications officials who say the time has come for him to relinquish some of his power to a more permanent institution, such as the Federal Communications Commission. "There is a feeling that Judge Greene is arrogating too much power -- that he seems to be the citadel of judgment" on the telephone industry, said one telecommunications lawyer who declined to be named because he practices before Greene.
"All good things must come to an end," said former FCC chairman Richard Wiley at a telecommunications conference last month. "While Greene performed a great service, there comes a time when there should be a shift away from the judiciary and to regulatory mechanisms." Congress, the FCC and the court now have a say over aspects of crucial issues -- such as consumer telephone access charges -- and that is causing a "paralysis of policy making," Wiley said.
But in a lengthy interview last week, Greene minimized his role in determining the industry's course, saying that much of the power he wields has been thrust upon him: He was obliged to approve the breakup compromise reached by AT&T and the Justice Department two years ago; and now he is obliged to see that the purposes of that decree are achieved.
"It isn't any great thrill to be passing on telephone matters all the time," he said, noting that he spends about one-third of his time on telephone issues now and would like it to be less. (The telephone industry took "120 percent" of his time during the trial of the government's antitrust suit against AT&T, he said.) But, he said, "all I'm trying to do is to carry out the decree. I talk about this decree like some other people talk about the Bible," he added with a chuckle. "I'm just trying to decide lawsuits that people bring me. I don't go out like legislators do and make up programs. People come to me to bring a lawsuit. They file a motion and I rule on it. . . . None of these things were things that I generated," he said.
Communications lawyers, however, say an example of Greene's discretionary authority was his ruling this year that the new regional telephone companies could not let new, nonphone ventures exceed 10 percent of their business -- a limit most are chafing under. Why 10 percent? "It seemed like a reasonable idea. I supposed somebody else could come up with 12 percent or 8 percent or whatever. But the principle is that telephone service would not be overwhelmed by outside interests."
By his rulings, Greene "has become a major institutional player in telecommunications policy," communications attorney Philip Verveer noted. "It's an inevitable function of presiding over a consent decree of such significant proportions. I'm not so worried as long as Judge Greene presides over the decree because he is an exceptional jurist and an able person. But my concern is with his unknown successor."
Greene, 61, said he has no plans of retiring and has never thought about handing the case over to another judge. But he added, "I'm not sure it would be that difficult" for another judge to take over.
Besides, Greene said, he is trying to "minimize" his involvement, partly by laying down some general guidelines for the new regional companies to let them know which new business ventures are acceptable.
"I've tried to set up a system whereby I'm not going to be sitting here constantly overseeing all of it," he said. "By the time I'm going to be gone, I would hope that all of these problems will have largely vanished anyhow. I'm not anticipating that this is going to go on and on and on."