Harold Greene, AT&T Case Judge, Dies
By Martin Weil
Greene, who stopped hearing cases in 1998, died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Known for his energy and intelligence, Greene took firm command of the litigation that broke the world's largest corporation into pieces. He thereby helped to reshape the entire telecommunications industry and, by extension, altered the daily lives of millions.
With his AT&T rulings and opinions, he became one of the best-known federal judges of his time and enhanced a reputation developed over long years for fairness and hard work, as well as commitment to due process, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
He has been widely regarded as perhaps Washington's premier trial judge of his era.
Before winning fame for first approving and then presiding over the consent decree that settled the telephone case, created the Baby Bells and ushered in a new world of competition, Greene had already made a powerful impact on justice in both the District and the nation.
As a Justice Department lawyer and official, he played an integral role in creating civil rights legislation that helped transform the nation in the 1960s. As a key aide and "answer man" to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he was regarded as a principal legal architect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Greene, a Washington resident since his World War II Army service in Europe, was also a major force in the late 1960s and early '70s in reorganizing the District's court system and in setting a high standard in administering justice in it. Before being appointed to the federal court here, he had been chief judge of the city's Superior Court.
During the turbulent days of the late 1960s and early '70s, when the District was a focus of social unrest and political protest, Greene won respect as a compassionate and firm believer in "the system" who labored diligently to afford constitutional rights to each person arrested.
There were times when chaos filled the streets and hundreds of people were swept up and detained. In other cities, people were arraigned in groups. Greene refused to countenance that. His court held hearings round-the-clock to hear each case individually.
Harold H. Greene, often called one of the legends of the American bar, was born in Germany, where his father owned a jewelry store. In 1939, faced by the virulence of Hitler's antisemitism, the family fled its homeland, making its way to Belgium, Vichy France, Spain and Portugal before arriving in this country in 1943, during World War II.
Greene, who already spoke fluent English, entered the Army and was sent back to Europe. He was in military intelligence, assigned to interrogate German prisoners.
In an interview conducted in 1996 by the D.C. Bar, Greene was asked about the satisfactions of returning with a victorious army to his native Germany.
Known for his wry humor, he said that in fact there was little time to formulate his thoughts in "such grandiose terms." Often, he said, his concerns were "I wonder where we are going to stay tonight" and "I hope the food is cooked better than it was yesterday."
In this country, his parents had moved from New York to Washington, and at war's end, Greene joined them. As a veteran, he gained admission to law school after two years of college, and he began attending George Washington University law school at night.
He said he sensed that law "was a profession where I might be able to make a contribution."
After graduation, he began clerking in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, then joined the U.S. attorney's office here, and later went to work in the office of legal counsel at the Justice Department. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1957 established Justice's civil rights division, and Greene went there to become the first head of the appeals and research section.
"There wasn't any question about what side I was on," Greene told the D.C. Bar. "Both Robert Kennedy and I, and many others, were convinced that there was only one right side.
"It wasn't like today, where there are many differing opinions on affirmative action and quotas and set-asides.
"Back then, there was a very clear-cut dividing line between right and wrong. Segregation was wrong. It was that simple."
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Greene to the local court that was the predecessor to today's D.C. Superior Court. It was known as the D.C. Court of General Sessions and dealt with essentially minor offenses and lesser civil matters.
A somewhat Hogarthian venue, perhaps with more than its share of the raffish and roguish, General Sessions had the reputation, Greene said, "of being no more than a police court."
In 1966, Greene was named chief judge. As he recalled it, he and some of the other new judges began to work for reform and reorganization. Greene's presence from 1966 to 1971 as chief judge of the old court has been credited with helping to overcome opposition to legislation that created the present Superior Court. It now handles virtually all the matters heard in the trial courts in any state.
In 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., rioting broke out here. In dealing with those arrested, Greene said, he "felt very strongly that the judiciary shouldn't cease to function as a judiciary merely because we were in the midst of difficult civil disturbances."
"In criminal cases," he said, "it is the individual that counts." He acted on this principle by keeping judges at work round-the-clock. Each case was tried as a normal case, and "I take some pride in that," he said.
After 12 years on the city's court, almost all as chief judge, Greene was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. District Court here, where one of the first group of cases assigned to him was the AT&T matter.
"I didn't dream up the breakup of AT&T," Greene said.
That, he said, followed from the consent decree agreed to by the two parties to the action, AT&T and the Justice Department.
The case involved as many as 30 or 40 lawyers on either side, providing a vast engine for creating arguments and submitting motions. Trial under Greene consumed 11 months.
And indeed, Greene suggested that the "voluminous opinions" he wrote on matters arising during trial "may have had some impact" in bringing the parties to settle. Some lawyers, he said, believed that those opinions signaled what his ruling might be. But he said that was a misconception.
"I didn't know how it was going to come out," he said, explaining that he was "much too busy" coping with problems that arose during trial. And, he said, he never did decide the case on its merits.
Greene once observed that the telephone industry grew up in the copper wire days when it was a natural monopoly, and that when microwaves made it possible to bypass the wooden pole network, the monopoly could not last.
The Department of Justice view was that AT&T used profits from its monopoly on local telephone service to suppress competition in the emerging long-distance and telephone equipment industries. But in the view of most of its customers, AT&T was a model provider of efficient, dependable service. They wished it had been left alone.
Greene held the view that the case "came out better than I expected," providing "great benefit to American businesses, to the economy and to American life in general, because it brought competition to the telecommunications industry."
Nonetheless, he said, "it is not the sort of thing I want written on my tombstone, for it's not the only thing I ever did in life."
He was a member of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda.
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Evelyn, of Washington; a son, Michael Greene, of McLean; a daughter, Stephanie Cavagrotti, of Culver City, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
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