AT&T merger judge says ‘no big issues’ in trial preparations

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. judge who will decide if wireless and pay TV provider AT&T Inc (T.N) may purchase Time Warner Inc (TWX.N) said on Friday that he saw “no big issues” in pre-trial preparations.

The Justice Department has said that the $85 billion deal is illegal because AT&T, once it owned movie and television show maker Time Warner, would have the ability and incentive to raise prices that it charges cable, satellite and streaming rivals for Time Warner’s content.

AT&T disagreed, and the case will go to trial on March 19.

Judge Richard Leon noted during a short pre-trial hearing on Friday that he was pleased to see that “no big issues” had arisen that he needed to resolve.

The judge set a further pre-trial hearing for Feb. 16. He will also meet informally on Feb. 12 with small groups of lawyers from both sides to discuss how the trial will proceed.

The two sides are expected to exchange witness lists, with a maximum of 30 witnesses, and expert reports on Friday.

Both sides said they intended to call former Justice Department economists to support their case. AT&T will call Dennis Carlton, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, while the Justice Department will call Carl Shapiro of the University of California at Berkeley.

U.S. President Donald Trump attacked the deal while on the campaign trail in 2016. Trump has also criticized Time Warner’s CNN news network and, in November, reiterated his opposition to the proposed transaction.

AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson told analysts on a conference call this week that he expected the case to be resolved through litigation. “We remain very confident that we’ll complete this merger,” he said.

Reporting by Diane Bartz, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien