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A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has refused to hold an expedited trial in the Justice Department’s challenge to EchoStar Communications Corp.’s acquisition of DirecTV, instead putting the trial off until March. U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle held an emergency hearing Tuesday on EchoStar’s demand for a speedy trial. The antitrust division had requested a June trial date, while EchoStar wanted to proceed with a 10-day trial starting Nov. 18. Huvelle referred several times to the EchoStar schedule as “inhumane” because of the amount of work required to prepare for trial, lawyers in the courtroom said. Huvelle is the court’s resident expert on speedy antitrust trials. Last year she conducted the SunGard Data Systems Inc. from complaint to decision in 22 days. EchoStar wants a speedy trial because the merger agreement permits DirecTV’s parent, Hughes Electronics Corp., to walk away from the deal on Jan. 21 if the companies have not secured all regulatory approvals. DirecTV would be entitled to a $600 million break-up fee and EchoStar would have to acquire its PanAmSat Corp. unit for $2.7 billion. Huvelle rejected both recommended trial dates and instead said she intended to hear the case in March before she starts a capital murder case. The judge indicated that EchoStar was not entitled to a trial before the Jan. 21 termination date because the companies were free to extend that deadline. EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin said Wednesday that the company was pleased with the March trial date, noting that it often takes months longer to schedule an antitrust trial. He declined to comment on whether the companies would extend the Jan. 21 deadline. The decision could be the final blow to the merger, which was investigated for a full year by the antitrust division and Federal Communications Commission. Both agencies concluded it would result in higher prices, a reduction in customer service, and less innovation. Lumpkin said the companies are continuing to work with the Department of Justice on an acceptable solution to its antitrust objections. A source said there is almost nothing EchoStar could do to cause the DOJ to withdraw the suit. EchoStar said it planned to litigate the merger as amended by the offer to establish Cablevision as a new direct broadcast satellite competitor. This plan includes permitting Cablevision to use EchoStar satellites and facilities until it can deploy its own systems. The Justice Department told Huvelle that tactic was questionable, noting that EchoStar and DirecTV lack a signed contract to implement the Cablevision plan. The judge also said she was concerned about holding the trial before the Federal Communications Commission completes its administrative consideration of the deal. The FCC is awaiting a decision by EchoStar to either submit a revised merger or to contest the agency before an administrative law judge. Lawyers in the courtroom said Huvelle was worried that her decision would essentially be an advisory opinion because the companies could not close the deal without FCC consent. She also expressed concern she might improperly influence the FCC’s process. The judge is expected to finalize a trial schedule today. EchoStar agreed Oct. 28, 2001, to acquire DirecTV. They argued the deal would provide a stronger rival to local cable monopolies, expedite deployment of broadband services, and enable them to offer local programming in all 210 markets in the United States. The FCC rejected those arguments Oct. 10 and referred the case to an administrative law judge, who has yet to consider the case. The Justice Department filed suit Oct. 31. Copyright �2002 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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