Authors: Steve Cernak, Dylan Carson, Kristen Harris
Back in person again, the 71st edition of the American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section’s annual Spring Meeting did not disappoint and Bona Law was there for the formal and informal conversations that will help shape antitrust enforcement in the U.S. and abroad. With over 3700 registrants from over 60 countries and dozens of panels, events, and receptions — formal and informal — the 2023 Spring Meeting was the place to be for antitrust and consumer protection lawyers last week. Bona Law attorneys Steve Cernak, Dylan Carson, and Kristen Harris represented the firm and engaged with numerous public antitrust enforcers, private practitioners and in-house antitrust counsel from across the globe on a variety of hot topics. Next year’s event promises to continue this tradition when Cernak becomes Antitrust Section Chair-elect in August 2023 and Harris joins him in Section leadership.
Cernak moderated a panel of the Federal Trade Commission Bureau Directors. Our takeaway of their message is that they have no plans to slow down the aggressive antitrust and consumer protection enforcement, despite some court losses and other resistance. Some commentators had complained that this FTC was downplaying or completely ignoring economic learning. The new Director of the Bureau of Economics swatted away that claim, saying he and his economists are fully on board with the enforcement direction. Expect continued aggressive enforcement out of this FTC, with a focus on revitalizing vertical merger enforcement, the Commission’s Section 5 authority, and Robinson-Patman Act enforcement. On the DOJ side, the importance of corporate antitrust compliance programs and the future of criminal and civil monopolization cases were repeated themes on multiple panels.
The Spring Meeting attracts practitioners and enforcers with a wide range of views on antitrust enforcement priorities. An interesting vibe we picked up from panels on the Biden Administration as well as hallway conversations is the newer ideological splits. On one side are the Biden Administration enforcers and their many supporters who want to see new or revived enforcement theories or laws very different from those that have prevailed for over forty years. On the other side are the supporters of that economics-based status quo, including both Obama-era enforcers and big business types, who, while not always agreeing on specifics, have found a common opponent in the Biden Administration enforcers. The split is not the same “red v. blue” split seen elsewhere in U.S. politics and expect to see strange bedfellows for some time to come.
So will the ideas and actions of the Biden Administration, and their supporters, survive? That was the question addressed by the largest panel at the Spring Meeting, the Chair’s Showcase program. While all those panelists offered helpful views, Andy Gavil’s historical review of past inflection points in antitrust history, especially during the Franklin Roosevelt and the Ronald Reagan Administrations, was especially illuminating. Comparing today’s moments to those historical eras, it appears that the durability of recent enforcement changes will depend on the reception of the courts and how long the new program lasts. We made similar points in an earlier post.