Paul Gugliuzza (BU) and Mark Lemley (Stanford) have posted Can a Court Change the Law by Saying Nothing? on the Federal Circuit's many affirmances without opinion in patentable subject matter cases. They note a remarkable discrepancy: "Although the court has issued over fifty Rule 36 affirmances finding the asserted patent to be invalid, it has not issued a single Rule 36 affirmance when finding in favor of a patentee. Rather, it has written an opinion in every one of those cases. As a result, the Federal Circuit’s precedential opinions provide an inaccurate picture of how disputes over patentable subject matter are actually resolved."
Of course, this finding alone does not prove that the Federal Circuit's Rule 36 practice is changing substantive law. The real question isn't how many cases fall on each side of the line, but where that line is. As the authors note, the skewed use of opinions might simply be responding to the demand from patent applicants, litigants, judges, and patent examiners for examples of inventions that remain eligible post-Alice. And the set of cases reaching a Federal Circuit disposition tells us little about cases that settle or aren't appealed or in which subject-matter issues aren't raised. But their data certainly show that patentees have done worse at the Federal Circuit than it appears from counting opinions.
Perhaps most troublingly, Gugliuzza and Lemley find some suggestive evidence that Federal Circuit judges' substantive preferences on patent eligibility are affecting their choice of whether to use Rule 36: Judges who are more likely to find patents valid against § 101 challenges are also more likely to cast invalidity votes via Rule 36. When both active and senior judges are included, this correlation is significant at the five-percent level. The judges on either extreme are Judge Newman (most likely to favor validity, and most likely to cast invalidity votes via Rule 36) and Chief Judge Prost (among least likely to favor validity, and least likely to cast invalidity vote via Rule 36), who also happen to be the two judges who are most likely to preside on the panels they sit. Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema recently posted an article on the importance of the assignment power across the 13 federal circuits; this may be one concrete example of that power in practice.
Gugliuzza and Lemley do not call for precedential opinions in all cases, but they do argue for more transparency, such as using short, nonprecedential opinions to at least list the arguments raised by the appellant. For lawyers without the time and money to find the dockets and briefs of Rule 36 cases, this practice would certainly provide a richer picture of how the Federal Circuit disposes of subject-matter issues.
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