Thirty-four years ago today, on January 8, 1982, a lengthy and complicated legal document was signed and officially issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, called a “consent decree” in a case named United States vs. AT&T. This piece of paper (more like a stack of paper) is incredibly historic and literally changed the world and how we live today. A final settlement between the parties, which included the federal government, in a long-running antitrust case against telephone company AT&T, the document provided for the break-up of one of the largest corporations in America, the “unbundling” of its various communications services and numerous other effects. This settlement, known as the “Ma Bell breakup,” completely changed the telecommunications landscape of the United States in a myriad of ways, some intended, most completely unintended. Few court cases have ever had such an outsized impact on American society, and almost none which haven’t come from the U.S. Supreme Court.
This article is not a history of the case or the Bell breakup. That subject is far too complicated to cover in a simple blog post. But in reading about it I was intrigued by the judge who signed and issued the consent decree, who was known as Harold Herman Greene. He was a judge sitting on the D.C. District Court, having been appointed in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. In fact, the AT&T case was assigned to him on his very first day in office. Potentially presiding over the largest antitrust divestiture case in American history, with billions of dollars and the nation’s entire communications infrastructure at stake–how’s that for a first day of work?
Telecom giant AT&T maintained a virtual monopoly on telephones during most of the 20th century, owning not only all the local exchanges (like this switchboard) but the companies that manufactured and sold the equipment. That ended in the 1980s with the Bell breakup.
Long before this, however, Greene had an absolutely fascinating life. He was born in Germany in 1923, his birth name being Heinz Grünhaus. Ten when the Nazis came to power, his family decided to flee Germany in 1943, at the height of World War II, in an odyssey of escape that took them across much of German-held Europe and would probably make for a fascinating movie. Greene came to the United States and joined the U.S. Army. He was promptly shipped back to Europe and employed interrogating German P.O.W.’s, a very good job for him given his knowledge of the language and connections in Germany. After the war he went to law school, gaining his law degree in 1952 from George Washington Law School. He also picked up some important connections, such as clerking for Bennett Champ Clark, a former Senator who then sat on the same court that Greene himself would later occupy. Clark was instrumental in getting the G.I. Bill passed in 1944, which provided education for millions of Americans returning from the war–including, incidentally, Harold Greene.
In the 1960s, working for the Justice Department, Greene was crucial in advancing civil rights and the federal fight against racial discrimination. He helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so Greene made an arcane legal decision which eventually had huge consequences. Did Congress’s authority to pass the Civil Rights Act come from the 14th Amendment, or did it come from the Commerce Clause–a part of the Constitution that, while powerful, had seemingly little to do with civil rights? Greene chose to base the Act on the Commerce Clause, in part because previous civil rights legislation in the 19th century, which was based on the 14th Amendment, was struck down by the Supreme Court in the infamous Slaughter-House Cases of 1873 as being beyond Congress’s authority. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was immediately challenged, as everyone expected. The case was United States v. Heart of Atlanta Motel. This time the Supreme Court found the civil rights legislation valid. Why? Because Congress had expansive powers under the Commerce Clause. A whole class of racial discrimination in the United States was outlawed thanks to Harold Greene’s legal acumen.
This motel in Atlanta, the Heart of Atlanta, brought suit in federal court to challenge the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That it lost the case is attributable in large measure to Harold Greene.
Though the consequences of the Bell case have been much-criticized since 1982, Greene insisted to the end of his life that the consent decree came to the right result. For one thing it staved off years of potential litigation, saving the U.S. government millions, and it lowered phone rates for customers coast to coast. Our current era of abusive communications monoliths like Verizon and Comcast, some of the most-hated corporations on the planet, stems probably more from the policy mismanagement of the aftermath of the Bell breakup than the breakup itself. Antitrust law is not very sexy, but it’s very necessary in preventing monopolistic abuses by greedy corporations–if the law is actually used and applied for the purposes for which it was intended. Greene knew this.
Greene sat on the D.C. District Court for the rest of his life, albeit on senior status after 1995. He died in January 2000. Here is a man who will be little-remembered in the history books, though he probably deserves to be. You may never have heard of Harold H. Greene before now, but the hand-held smart phone you’re probably reading this article on would not exist–at least in its present form–without him.