Sunday, December 1, 2013

How to Monitor Apple's Monitor

Suspicious of Monitors
Section 1 of the Sherman Act forbids "contracts in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states," while Section 2 forbids  "monopolization" and "attempts to monopolize."  The Act also requires the Department of Justice to enforce the Act, by seeking, where applicable, equitable and legal relief in U.S. District Courts against firms and individuals who have violated the Act's provisions.  It appears that the Department may have used this authority to impose, no doubt inadvertently, the very type of monopoly pricing the Sherman Act was designed to prevent.

This last July the United States prevailed in a civil suit that challenged Apple's alleged agreements with book publishers to maintain e-book prices above the levels that unbridled competition would produce.  Among other forms of relief, the United States sought and obtained from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York the appointment of a so-called "External Compliance Monitor," in addition to a new "Internal Compliance Officer," both, of course, at Apple's expense.  The final judgment requiring these appointments did not provide for competitive bidding to set the fees of either monitor but instead simply provided that the monitors would charge a "reasonable" fee. 

In paper's filed the day before Thanksgiving, Apple informed the court that the External Monitor, charged with ensuring that Apple comply with the antitrust laws, is himself charging Apple $1,100 per hour, as well as an "administrative fee" of fifteen percent, for a total of $1265 per hour.  Apple claims that it has never paid such high legal fees.  (See here for a more detailed summary of Apple's objections.)

If Apple's assertions are correct, the government's insistence on such a monitor on the terms described above is supremely ironic.   After all, as explained in previous posts (see  here and here), the whole point of the Sherman Act and its Rule of Reason as articulated in Standard Oil v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911) is to prevent contracts (Section 1) or other practices (Section 2) that produce or maintain monopoly or the consequences of monopoly, without any offsetting efficiency benefits.  These consequences, of course, include prices above those that a competitive market would produce.  By winning the appointment of an External Monitor, against Apple's will and without competitive bidding, the Department of Justice has created conditions conducive to the very sort of competitive harm the Sherman Act was designed to prevent.  To be sure, the monitor's fees cannot themselves violate the Sherman Act, which only regulates "trade or commerce among the several states."  Like the Commerce Clause itself, the Act assumes the existence of pre-existing commerce  that parties might restrain. (See also here and here).  The District Court's coercive (but apparently legal) requirement that Apple purchase legal services against its will does not seem to qualify as such commerce.  Moreover, the terms of the final judgment would authorize Apple to seek a judicial determination that the External Monitor's fee is unreasonable.    However, as William Howard Taft explained long ago in his most famous judicial decision, see Addyston Pipe and Steel Co. v. United States, 85 F. 271 (6th Cir. 1898) (Taft, J.),  judicial oversight of pricing decisions is a poor substitute for the determination of such prices by a competitive market, there competitive bidding by pipe producers.  Judges who take on this task, Taft said, "set sail on a sea of doubt," and rely upon their own "vague and varying opinions" regarding "how much, based on principles of political economy, men ought to be allowed to restrain competition."  See id. at 282-84.  See also National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 692-94 (1978) (describing competitive harm resulting from horizontal agreement not to engage in competitive bidding).

This Blogger has no doubt that the court-appointed External Monitor is a superb attorney who is highly-qualified to perform the duties described in the final judgment.  Moreover, there is no indication that, in setting his fee, the External Monitor has acted in anything other than complete good faith.   Nonetheless, as the Roman poet Juvenal (pictured above) asked, admittedly in a different context, "sed quis custodient ipsos custodes," viz. "who will monitor the monitors themselves?"  The best such monitor, as William Howard Taft explained, is competition.