By Andrew Longstreth
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a U.S. judge prepares to face a Chinese puzzle in a rare antitrust trial, one skill in particular stands him in good stead - his ability to speak Chinese.
The class action lawsuit was filed by vitamin C purchasers who claimed that the Chinese manufacturers had fixed prices. The antitrust trial, due to begin on February 25, would be the first to involve Chinese corporate defendants, said lawyers involved in the case.
It also marks the first time the Chinese government has filed an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief in a U.S. court. Such briefs are filed by parties not involved in a case but who believe the court ruling may affect their interest.
"I don't know how to tell you this, but I am an expert in Chinese," said U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, according to a transcript of a court hearing in Brooklyn, New York. "I speak Chinese."
The case was assigned to Cogan after the original judge had died in January 2011. Then-Chief Judge Raymond Dearie of the Eastern District of New York said he had recommended Cogan to the case based on a random process, and not because he had seen Cogan speak the language at various times.
"Not that I knew what he was saying," Dearie said.
Cogan studied Chinese during his undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has spent time in Hong Kong, according to James Bernard, his former colleague at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. Bernard, who also speaks Chinese, said the two bonded over their shared second language.
Bernard said he would not consider Cogan to be fluent in Chinese, but capable of stringing together sentences and understanding more than he can speak.
"He certainly knows the word for judge," Bernard said.
A spokesperson for Cogan said he could not comment outside the courtroom pending the litigation.
Cogan said at a hearing last year that if there was a dispute about the translation, the issue would go to the jury.
"I'm not going to be the one to determine the proper translation because that's not how it's done," he said.
The two defendants scheduled to go to trial are Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co Ltd and Weisheng Pharmaceutical Co Ltd.
In court papers, China's Ministry of Commerce argued that the defendants were compelled by Chinese law to coordinate prices and production.
The case is In re: Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, No. 06-md-1738.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Richard Chang)