The Judge Deciding Google’s Fate

One of Amit P. Mehta’s first cases after becoming a federal judge in late 2014 proved to be a crash course in antitrust.

Sysco, the nation’s largest distributor of food to restaurants and cafeterias, was trying to buy the rival US Foods, and the Federal Trade Commission had sued to block the $3.5 billion deal, arguing that it would stifle competition.

Judge Mehta told lawyers on both sides that he would need help educating himself. Over the next few months, he was a tireless and bright student, according to lawyers for the government and Sysco, absorbing the details of antitrust law and asking sharp questions about precedents, economic theory and the food-distribution business.

After the trial in 2015, Judge Mehta wrote a comprehensive, closely reasoned 128-page opinion and ordered a temporary halt to the deal. Within days, Sysco abandoned its acquisition plan.

“I didn’t like the result, but it was a well-thought-out, solid opinion,” said Richard Parker, who represented Sysco and is now a partner at the international law firm Milbank.

Judge Mehta, 52, will soon be bringing his experience from that case to help make a landmark antitrust decision.

Joined by a group of state attorneys general, the Justice Department sued Google in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the company illegally protected its monopoly in internet search, partly by paying billions to persuade companies, including Apple and Samsung, to use its search engine. Google has countered that it did so to create the best experience for consumers.

Judge Mehta decided that the government could proceed to trial with its allegation that Google illegally shielded its monopoly with multibillion-dollar deals to make its search engine the default on smartphones and browsers.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday and Friday in the most significant federal suit challenging a tech giant since the government took on Microsoft in the 1990s. Judge Mehta’s ruling is also likely to set a precedent for a series of U.S. antitrust cases that are already in the pipeline against companies including Amazon, Apple and Meta.

While the stakes are far higher today, Judge Mehta’s handling of the Sysco case — his previous major antitrust ruling — fits a consistent pattern, according to 10 former law firm colleagues, former law clerks, antitrust experts and lawyers whose cases he has tried. They described the judge as smart and careful, a hard worker and a voracious learner who made a genuine effort to thoroughly weigh both sides of a case.

He doesn’t have a voluminous record of antitrust rulings, aside from Sysco. While it’s hard to predict the way he’ll rule, his judicial conduct to date suggests that whatever he decides in U.S. et al. v. Google will most likely prove difficult to overrule on appeal.

“It’s been an extremely long, arduous road, and that’s not just this trial but the duration of the case,” Judge Mehta said in November as testimony in the trial drew to a close. “I can tell you, as I sit here today, I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Judge Mehta tells his law clerks that a fair trial begins with hard work and preparation. You never know what may be important in a case, he says, so read every page, study every case law citation.

“You learn there’s no bound to the hours he’ll put in to get it right,” said Alex Haskell, a former law clerk who recently left the White House, where he was a top legislative aide.

Judge Mehta declined an interview request through his chambers.

Born in India, he came to America with his family when he was 1 year old. His father, Priyavadan Mehta, was an engineer; his mother, Ragini Mehta, a laboratory technician. They settled in suburban Baltimore.

Judge Mehta graduated from Georgetown University and the University of Virginia School of Law with academic honors. He peeled off from a rising career at Zuckerman Spaeder, a litigation boutique, to become a public defender for five years, taking a salary cut for a different kind of opportunity.

“He really wanted to do that work, represent people who couldn’t afford it,” said William W. Taylor III, a founding partner of Zuckerman Spaeder.

The stint as a public defender gave Judge Mehta a wealth of courtroom experience — good training for a future judge. He returned to Zuckerman Spaeder and later became a partner, working as a criminal and civil defense lawyer on a wide range of cases. In 2014, the Obama administration nominated him to be a federal judge, and he was confirmed that December.

Judge Mehta was randomly assigned to the Google case in October 2020, after the Trump administration’s Justice Department filed its antitrust suit.

In the trial, Judge Mehta asked witnesses occasional questions, mostly for elaboration and clarification. He has also occasionally deployed humor in the otherwise-staid proceedings, joking on the trial’s opening day that the courtroom full of lawyers had “the highest concentration of blue suits in any one location.”

But his major role in shaping the case came before the trial began, in a ruling last August that narrowed its scope.

Judge Mehta decided that the government could proceed to trial with its allegation that Google illegally shielded its monopoly with multibillion-dollar deals to make its search engine the default on smartphones and browsers. But he ruled out other claims, including the charge that Google broke the law by boosting its own products in search results over those of specialized sites, like Amazon and Yelp.

Streamlining the case to what Judge Mehta deemed the core issues helped keep the trial testimony at 10 weeks, as scheduled.

Early in the trial, Judge Mehta closed the courtroom in large part to the press and public, bowing to arguments made by Google and other companies that it was necessary to protect confidential business information. After an outcry, Judge Mehta opened up the court three weeks into the trial.

Later, Judge Mehta conceded that this was a misstep. “I should have been a little bit more probing of the parties as to how much of it really needed to be under seal,” he said in court on Oct. 19. “So I’ll fess up to that.”

Still, crucial court documents remained heavily or entirely redacted. And documents were not being routinely shared with the press, even ones without sensitive information. After The New York Times, supported by other news organizations, filed a motion for greater and more timely access to exhibits, Judge Mehta loosened things up somewhat and forced Google to unseal more documents. One notable disclosure: Google paid Apple and others more than $26 billion a year to make its search engine the default on smartphones and browsers.

Joined by a group of state attorneys general, the Justice Department sued Google, alleging that the company illegally protected its monopoly in internet search, partly by paying billions to persuade companies to use its search engine.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

It’s unclear what Judge Mehta will rule, legal experts say, in part because he hasn’t demonstrated an overarching antitrust ideology. But he is known for paying meticulous attention to the evidence and assessing whether it conforms to precedents in case law.

That fact-based, case-by-case approach appeared as he ruled on criminal suits against pro-Trump rioters who were involved in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Last May, Judge Mehta sentenced Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia and an organizer of the riot, to 18 years in prison after he was found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Mr. Rhodes, who pleaded not guilty, told the court he was a “political prisoner.”

At his sentencing, Judge Mehta called Mr. Rhodes “an ongoing threat and peril to this country, to the republic and the very fabric of our democracy.”

But Judge Mehta treated Matthew Mark Wood, one of the first rioters to enter the Capitol building, very differently. Mr. Wood, who was 23 when he participated in the riot, expressed remorse after pleading guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding. Prosecutors requested a sentence of 57 months. But Judge Mehta sentenced Mr. Wood to 12 months of home detention, telling him, “I don’t think this sentence should ruin your life.”

By all accounts, Judge Mehta is widely read and has diverse cultural tastes. In a music copyright case, he included a footnote that said he did not need any expert testimony when it came to hip-hop music and lyrics. He had listened to hip-hop for decades, he wrote, and his favorite artists, reflecting his age, included Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake and Eminem.

Judge Mehta is a passionate sports fan, especially when it comes to the Baltimore Orioles. At an event to celebrate his appointment as a judge, Dr. Sanjay Desai, a friend since childhood and a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, joked that the judge “will defend the Orioles no matter what the facts are.”

Though his courtroom experience in antitrust is limited, Judge Mehta has been engaged in the field, serving as a judicial representative to the American Bar Association’s antitrust division and occasionally speaking at its events.

He presents himself as a “generalist federal judge,” then proceeds to show a sophisticated understanding of antitrust law, said William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University.

“It’s going to be difficult for a reviewing court to say, ‘You got it wrong,’” said Mr. Kovacic, a former chairman of the F.T.C. “They will be inclined to give Judge Mehta the benefit of the doubt that they can trust his work.”

David McCabe contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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