With the untimely passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the best known and most controversial Justice on the Court, commentators, including this one, have been called upon to assess his legacy – both immediate and long term – in various areas of the law.
Justice Scalia was not known primarily as an antitrust judge and scholar. Indeed, in his confirmation hearing for the Court, he joked about what he saw as the incoherent nature of much of antitrust analysis. What he was best known for, of course, is his method of analysis of statutes and the Constitution: a literal textualism with respect to statutes and a reliance on “originalism” with respect to the Constitution.
Probably his most influential antitrust opinion was the 2004 decision in Verizon Communications Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko LLP which limited antitrust plaintiffs’ ability to hold a company with monopoly power liable for failing to cooperate with rivals.
Taking a literalist view of the Sherman Act, Justice Scalia wrote that there was a good reason why Section 2 claims required a showing of anti-competitive conduct, not just a monopoly:
The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system,” he wrote. “The opportunity to charge monopoly prices — at least for a short period — is what attracts ‘business acumen’ in the first place; it induces risk-taking that produces innovation and economic growth.
Thus, Justice Scalia fashioned a majority in holding that the competitive conduct of a monopolist that had earned its hegemony was not inherently suspect. This has come to be a dominant view generally in the antitrust field, but critics have argued that the decision entrenches power and judicial liberals who might succeed Justice Scalia could take a more restrictive, less literal view of the law.
In 1991, Justice Scalia led a majority in Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising Inc., a case in which a competitor had claimed that an advertising rival and a municipality had conspired in passing an ordinance favoring the incumbent. In ruling against the plaintiff, Justice Scalia wrote that there was no “conspiracy exception” to Parker v. Brown, the 1943 Supreme Court case that established antitrust immunity for anti-competitive restraints imposed by state governments. On the other hand, in the recent North Carolina Dentists litigation with the FTC, Justice Scalia joined a majority that held the state action exemption did not apply to certain guild behavior where there was no active supervision by the state – again, a literalist approach.
Justice Scalia was influential in limiting class actions, enforcing arbitration agreements and requiring strict rules of pleading plausible causes of action. Cases like the antitrust actions in AT&T v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors, backing enforcement of arbitration agreements that blocked class treatment of claims, and the now often-cited cases of Twombley and Iqbal with respect to pleading currently rule the entry gate for large-case litigation, particularly antitrust.
For all of his conservative rulings, Justice Scalia was not a results-oriented judge determined to put antitrust plaintiffs in their place, I think that he would have argued that he was strictly neutral on the merits and didn’t care whether business prevailed or whether the class action plaintiffs prevailed. Whether, the conservative majority that adopted his methods will continue to hold, or whether some of these methods will be superseded by a more-elastic interpretive mode of judging will be at the forefront of the confirmation hearing of the next Justice.