Washington (CNN)A federal judge who was critical of the Comcast-NBC Universal merger before signing off on the media megadeal in 2011 will oversee the Justice Department's lawsuit to block AT&T's similar takeover of Time Warner.
Meet the judge who'll oversee DOJ's antitrust case against AT&T-Time Warner
Judge Richard Leon is a George W. Bush-appointee who has served on the US District Court for DC since 2002. On Tuesday, he was randomly assigned to the case -- one of the biggest antitrust showdowns to hit a Washington courtroom in years.
The case had been assigned to Judge Christopher Cooper, an Obama-appointee, but was switched to Leon's courtroom less than two hours later. The court did not provide a reason for the reassignment. Cooper's wife works at the law firm Arnold & Porter, which is lead counsel for AT&T on antitrust issues, posing a potential conflict.
Leon is a conservative and veteran judge with a legal resume that includes time in the Reagan Justice Department and on the House Banking Committee's Whitewater investigation. He has issued prominent decisions against government overreach, most notably a 2013 opinion calling the NSA's collection of domestic phone records "almost-Orwellian" and unconstitutional.
But his skepticism of the Comcast deal will be closely studied by attorneys on all sides of the case. Comcast-NBCU is one of the most high-profile media deals to face antitrust scrutiny in recent years until now.
In the suit filed against AT&T and Time Warner on Monday, the Justice Department argued that the deal violates antitrust law because the new company would likely "use its control of Time Warner's popular programming as a weapon to harm competition."
CNN is owned by Turner, a subsidiary of Time Warner.
The anti-competition claims from the government mirror arguments made by the Obama DOJ in 2011 as it worked through approval of the Comcast-NBCU merger.
That deal was eventually approved by the Justice Department, after the government extracted certain promises from the companies. For example, they agreed to an arbitration process to let online video platforms, like Hulu and Netflix, contest any licensing deals struck by the combined company.
As the judge assigned to review the settlement in 2011, Leon criticized the arbitration process, noting that decisions could not be appealed, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"I'm giving you fair notice I'm not sure I'm going to sign this," Leon said at a hearing, the Journal reported. "My concerns are such that because of the arbitration it's not in the public interest."
Leon later approved the deal, allowing the merger to move forward in September 2011, but only after adding additional reporting requirements about the arbitration claims.
"Since neither the Court nor the parties has a crystal ball to forecast how this final judgment, along with its arbitration mechanisms, will actually function ... I believe that certain additional steps are necessary," Leon wrote in a memo accompanying his September order.
Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who is leading the Justice Department's lawsuit against AT&T and Time Warner, worked as a lobbyist for Comcast on the NBCU deal. He said this week that he is skeptical of the value of so-called behavioral remedies for resolving antitrust disputes between regulators and companies.
Despite a reputation for unpredictability, Leon has established himself as an experienced and conservative voice in the DC court.
In a 2011 ruling, Leon sided with tobacco companies when he blocked the implementation of a law that would have mandated the inclusion of graphic pictures and messages showing the dangers of smoking on cigarette packages, citing First Amendment rights against unconstitutionally compelled speech.
Antitrust experts on Tuesday predicted Leon's reputation as a conservative would not bode well for the government in the AT&T lawsuit.
"Leon would most likely be in the camp of judicial restraint, whereas the Department of Justice is bringing a case which essentially calls for aggressive enforcement of the antitrust laws," said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, who worked as an FTC lawyer between 1980 and 1983 and now co-heads the antitrust group at DC law firm Arnall Golden Gregory.
"Judge Leon is a smart judge. He has antitrust experience. He has merger experience," Jacobovitz said. "But he may not be the right judge for the Department of Justice in terms of a merger like this."