AT&T breakup clears final hurdle

Do big business and government have the right to settle antitrust cases without the Supreme Court airing states' opposition to the agreement? The high court evidently thinks so, reports Monitor legal correspondent Curtis J. Sitomer. It voted 6 to 3 to uphold a lower-court-ordered breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, the world's largest private company, despite states' challenges and without hearing formal arguments. This action cleared the way for a massive restructuring of AT&T.

AT&T agreed last year to divest itself of 22 wholly owned local telephone companies, two-thirds of its $140 billion in assets, in settlement of a long-standing monopoly dispute with the Justice Department. However, after a divestiture plan was agreed upon and ratified by a federal judge, several states , led by Maryland and Illinois, said the decree interfered with their authority to regulate public utilities.

The court's one-line order simply affirmed the settlement of the antitrust suit. But in effect it also ratified the government's right to settle with AT&T. Supporters said delay in resolving the conflict would hurt the industry and the public. Dissenters, led by Associate Justice William Rehnquist and including Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Byron White, said the action was too speedy, indicating that they felt the court should have heard full arguments.

In an another move, the high court agreed to consider whether the government may forbid editorializing by public-broadcasting stations that receive federal funds. The justices will hear the government's appeal from a California ruling that such a restriction on the television and radio stations violated free-speech rights.

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