Albion Monitor /News

West Publishing Puts Itself up for Sale

by James Love, Taxpayer Assets Project

With estimated annual revenues of about $700 million, few details of its finances are known

In a surprising move, West Publishing announced on August 29th that it had hired investment bankers Goldman Sachs and E.G. Edwards to explore the sale or restructuring of West Publishing.

Details of the announcement appeared in a story written by John Oslund for the Minneapolis Star Tribune the next day. West is considering several options, Oslund wrote, including "taking the closely held company public through an initial public stock offering, entering a joint venture or strategic alliance, a recapitalization to buy out existing shareholders or an outright sale." The announcement was made by Dwight Opperman, the Chairman of the West Publishing board of directors.

The Star Tribune estimated that West had annual revenues of about $700 million, and it quoted experts who said the firm might fetch a price as high as $3 to $4 billion. The Star Tribune said that possible purchasers of the company would include Thomson, the large Canadian publisher, Dow Jones, or the Washington Post.

West Publishing is a privately held company and few details of its finances are publicly known. The company reports that it has nine shareholders who own more than 1 percent of the company, including Dwight Opperman. Forbes recently reported that the Opperman "clan" held a majority of the company stock, although company officials have reportedly asserted that the Opperman holdings are not quite that high.

Observers think that West cannot long sustain its current monopolistic control

The announcement comes as West is facing increasing resistance to its monopoly control over the corrected text and citations to court opinions. Public interest groups, including Taxpayer Assets Project (TAP), law librarians, members of state bar associations, other researchers, and small entrepreneurial high technology firms are pressing judges and other public officials to disseminate court opinions electronically, using public domain citations. Legal information is slowing showing up on various Internet sites. The Government Printing Office now provides free online access to the entire U.S. Code. Professor Hank Perritt from Villanova law school and others are trying to organize a coalition of university law schools to provide free public access to federal court opinions on the World Wide Web.

West is a politically active firm which has long boasted an impressive array of friends in all three branches of government, as evidenced by the firm's defeat of a Department Justice proposal to create a public domain database of court opinions, and the apparent side-tracking of a Justice Department antitrust probe into West. But recently West has begun to lose a few.

Earlier this year West was shocked by a very public defeat of a special interest provision in the Paperwork Reduction Act, after an outpouring of opposition to the provision from the Internet community. Next a Star Tribune investigation into West gifts to federal judges, including members of the Supreme Court, began to erode West's special relation to the federal judiciary. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy publicly asked West to distance itself from the "Devitt" award and junkets the company had given to federal judges. Senator Robert Byrd later read the Star Tribune story into the Congressional Record and the Senate approved a measure asking the courts to rewrite their ethics rules. And in New York, the federal judge hearing a key copyright suit against West disqualified herself, after being queried on her contacts with the company.

TAP and a number of other observers think that West cannot long sustain its current monopolistic control over the body of federal and state court opinions, and dramatic changes in prices for its products will be inevitable.

The Star Tribune's analysis suggests that key West shareholders believe they can sell the company for a premium today, before the brunt of increased competition takes its full toll on the company's profitablity.

James Love writes for Taxpayer Assets Project, an organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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