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The Senate passed a bill Friday which strengthens judicial oversight of consent decrees that the Department of Justice enters into with companies involved in controversial mergers. Attached to the “The Standards Development Organization Advancement Act of 2003″ is an antitrust reform bill initially sponsored by Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The antitrust bill would give the court more discretion to review consent decrees, increase criminal penalties for antitrust violations such as bid-rigging, and bar treble damage claims against companies that help the government prosecute other members of illegal cartels. The most controversial change involved the Tunney Act, a law which requires agreements between the Justice Department and private parties to be subject to judicial review. Such reviews have traditionally been rubber stamp approvals. But the law became controversial as part of the Microsoft Corp. settlement, where interest groups tried to use the Tunney Act to derail the resolution of the case. The Tunney Act was intended to ensure politics did not play a role in an antitrust decision. It does not apply to the Federal Trade Commission because that agency is run by a bi-partisan group of commissioners. Approved unanimously as an unobjectionable piece of legislation, the bill changes the verb used to describe the court’s responsibility to look at decrees from “may” to “shall.” It is intended to signal judges that they have a duty to review these consent decrees. The bill also includes a preamble which says Congress intends for judges to intervene in cases even if the settlement does not make a mockery of justice, which some believe is the current standard. It also says that the change is not intended to require judges to hold evidentiary hearings or to permit third-parties to intervene in the proceedings. The legislation also would allow the Justice Department to publish Tunney Act notices electronically rather than in print. “It will also ensure that when the government brings an antitrust case, the settlement serves the public interest,” Kohl said in a statement. “Additionally, it will restore the ability of the courts to engage in a meaningful review, not simply rubber stamp their approval, of these cases.” The measure now moves to the House, where the measure stands a good chance of passing. “Recently, we’ve been reminded how damaging white-collar crime can be to consumers, employees and investors,” DeWine said. “Antitrust violations are just as serious as other white-collar crimes. The bill passed by the Senate today would help target antitrust violations by both increasing the penalties against offenders and increasing the incentives for those who assist in investigations.” Copyright �2004 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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