What Democratic Contenders Are Missing in the Race to Revive Antitrust

At the end of the day, legal decisions are made by judges.

Elizabeth Warren
Karen Pulfer Focht / Reuters

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on April 5, 2019.

Antitrust law has recently emerged as a critical issue among Democratic presidential contenders. Senator Elizabeth Warren threw down the gauntlet with her ambitious plan to overhaul antitrust law’s treatment of technology platforms and appoint enforcers who would break up tech giants such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Senator Amy Klobuchar quickly responded with her own call to investigate whether such breakups are warranted. Retweeting Warren, Representative Tulsi Gabbard promised to introduce similar legislation in the House of Representatives. Pressed for a response to Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg conceded that high levels of market concentration should “set off alarms.”

But every proposal to date—from Buttigieg’s comparatively tepid observation to Warren’s more sweeping plan—overlooks a key fact. At the end of the day, legal decisions are made by judges.

The new ideas being promoted by Democratic contenders are, to be sure, a breath of fresh air. Antitrust may seem an unlikely candidate for the spotlight, but its growing popular appeal reflects mounting concern over corporate power and consolidation. The U.S. antitrust community has long been insular and homogenized, its thinking dominated by the conservative Chicago School of law and economics. Today, we are left with a narrow, technocratic status quo that assumes markets usually work and antitrust enforcement will do more harm than good. Over time, this has contributed to a near-total lack of significant enforcement actions. Markets have become increasingly dominated by a few players, causing well-documented harms such as higher prices, lower quality, lower wages, and a less dynamic economy. Innovative proposals such as Warren’s have greatly expanded the realm of possible solutions—as policy wonks would put it, she has shifted the Overton window.

But the federal courts represent a massive stumbling block for any progressive antitrust movement. Reformers have identified two paths forward; both lead eventually to the court system. The first is relatively moderate: appoint regulators who will actually enforce the laws already on the books. Warren’s plan rests in part on this straightforward idea. The second, more audacious path requires congressional action to amend and strengthen our current laws. Warren’s call for a new ban on technology companies’ buying and selling via their own platforms falls into this category. Klobuchar has also proposed new antitrust legislation that would make it easier to block harmful mergers and acquisitions.

But no matter its content, enforcing a law requires persuading a judge. When it comes to U.S. antitrust laws, federal judges—not Congress, and not regulatory agencies—are the ultimate arbiters. The Department of Justice Antitrust Division, one of our two public enforcement agencies, files all its cases in federal courts. And although the Federal Trade Commission (the other) can decide cases internally, the inevitable appeals eventually end up in court as well.

No matter how strongly worded a law may be, ideologically driven judges can usually find a way around enforcing it. The cyclical history of U.S. antitrust law is proof that judges wield nearly limitless institutional power in this area.

Soon after Congress passed the Sherman Act in 1890, a conservative Supreme Court began to chip away at its effectiveness. Congress reacted in 1914 with the Clayton Act, which sought to ban anticompetitive mergers. In 1936, at the height of the New Deal era, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, which prohibits price discrimination (charging different prices to different buyers for the same product). These laws were actively enforced for decades.

But starting in the late 1970s, conservative judges began to erode the Clayton Act. Today, megamergers among competitors such as Bayer and Monsanto barely raise eyebrows. So-called vertical mergers, which combine suppliers and their customers, are now all but immune from antitrust enforcement—see the DOJ’s failed challenge to AT&T and Time Warner’s recent tie-up.

Under the business-friendly Roberts Court, the Robinson-Patman Act has similarly been eviscerated. By the 2000s, the ideas of the conservative Chicago School had become mainstream in antitrust circles. Robinson-Patman, a law intended to protect small businesses, was an easy target for Chicago School critics narrowly focused on efficiency and low consumer prices. Their attacks found a receptive audience in the federal judiciary. Among insiders, Robinson-Patman is now known as “zombie law.” It remains on the books, but regulators no longer bother trying to enforce it.

If Democrats want to change antitrust law, they will first and foremost need to change the judges who apply it. Yet none of the 2020 contenders championing antitrust reform have even mentioned the possibility of appointing progressive antitrust thinkers to the bench.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have long recognized the centrality of antitrust to broader questions about the apportionment of power in society. In his seminal work, The Antitrust Paradox, Robert Bork called antitrust a “microcosm in which larger movements of our society are reflected.” Battles fought in this arena, Bork wrote, “are likely to affect the outcome of parallel struggles in others.” Strong antitrust enforcement keeps powerful monopolies in check. Toothless antitrust allows the unlimited accumulation of corporate power.

Recognizing the high stakes, the Republican Party has gone to great lengths to appoint conservative antitrust experts to the federal judiciary. Bork was an antitrust professor at Yale Law School before becoming an appellate judge in 1982.* Frank Easterbrook practiced and taught antitrust before donning the black robe in 1985. Douglas Ginsburg served as the head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division before he became a federal judge in 1986. None of the three managed to join the Supreme Court, but not for lack of trying. Reagan nominated both Bork and Ginsburg to serve as justices, though Ginsburg withdrew and Bork was famously rejected after a contentious Senate hearing.

And whom did the GOP select as its very first U.S. Supreme Court nominee during the Trump Administration? None other than Neil Gorsuch, who practiced antitrust law for more than a decade before joining the Tenth Circuit. Even as a judge, Gorsuch continued to teach a law-school course on antitrust until his confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2017.

Once upon a time, progressives demonstrated similar concern about judicial treatment of antitrust laws. Justice Stephen Breyer, for example, served as special assistant to the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division before his judicial appointment by President Jimmy Carter. Earlier still, Justice John Paul Stevens was an antitrust lawyer, scholar, and professor before his appointment to the bench.

Today’s Democratic 2020 hopefuls seem to have forgotten the lessons of history. Their antitrust proposals focus exclusively on appointing the right regulators and amending our current statutes. These are right-minded ideas, but they overlook the central role judges play in our political system.

There is an old saying in the legal community: “Hard cases make bad law.” That may be true, but it is just as often the case that bad judges make bad law. Real antitrust reform will require more than regulatory and legislative tweaks; it will require the right judges.

* This article originally misstated the university at which Robert Bork taught.