Are The Last Eight Years Of Patent Board Appeals About To Be Tossed Out?
from the that-would-be-a-big-one dept
A little known lawsuit that has received very little attention could have a massive impact on our patent system. It turns out that, thanks to a procedural change in the law in March of 2000, nearly 2/3 of the appointments to the patent appeals board may have been unconstitutional. This could, potentially, invalidate any ruling involving one of those “unconstitutional” judges over the past eight years. Since the rulings involve panels of 3 such judges, an awful lot of the appeals will have involved one of the now questionably appointed judges. The details are very much inside baseball, but the quick summary is that the law was changed allowing the director of the Patent Office to appoint these judges, rather than the Secretary of Commerce. Yet, the Appointments Clause of the Constitution says that such appointments may only be made by the President, the courts or the heads of a department. The director of the USPTO is not considered a head of a department, as it’s a part of the Commerce department (so appointments would need to come from the Secretary of Commerce to be Constitutional).
While the issue was first raised by a well-regarded scholar last year, the argument is now being put to the test in court by a company that felt the Board ruled incorrectly on one of its patents, and raised that issue as a part of an appeal. The Patent Office and the Justice Department are claiming that the company can’t raise this issue now because it had not been used earlier (an appeal is supposed to be on the same issues raised earlier). Even if that’s the case, then you can bet some other company will eventually raise this issue as well — so the courts are going to need to deal with it sooner or later. Given the ramifications of a ruling saying that such appointments were unconstitutional (potentially invalidating an awfully large number of rulings), it would be surprising if the courts actually went that way. While it is reasonable to question why the head of the USPTO should be allowed to appoint these judges (there’s a potential conflict of interest), pulling eight years of rulings into question would present a legal nightmare over what, honestly, seems like a minor procedural issue. There are plenty of problems with the patent system, but I’d rather they not be dealt with using minor procedural “gotchas.”