By Dennis Crouch
First, let me give my endorsement: I admire Director Michelle Lee and believe that she will be an excellent Deputy Director of the USPTO as well as Acting Director. She is extremely well qualified both in terms of education and experience; she is well respected in the highest levels of governments as well as by business leaders and on-the-ground innovators; and she is ready to work hard to improve the Patent Office and the US Patent System.
That said, Director Lee has not begun her tenure well – seemingly because of her willingness to go along with plans set forth by those in the White House in terms of both (1) the questionable process of her appointment and (2) an initial secret and private roundtable discussion.
Improper Appointment: Yesterday, we discussed the appointment of Director Lee as Deputy Director without proper statutory authority. In particular, the statute is fairly clear that no Deputy Director can be appointed in the absence of a Director. 35 U.S.C. § 3(b)(1). Further, an odd feature of the appointment was the caveat that she will not be titled “Acting Director” of the Agency even though she will be “Acting as Director” and even though the same statute provides that the Deputy Director should fill that role in the absence or incapacity of a Director.
The limits on the Directorship appointments are not merely statutory. Rather, they are in place to maintain an important check on executive authority. Special authority flows from the PTO Director because the Director is appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. See U.S. Constitution Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 (requiring “Advice and Consent of the Senate”).
Now, the reality here is that these critiques are largely academic in that: (1) if put up for a vote in the Senate, Director Lee would very likely be approved based upon her qualifications that I discussed above; (2) any legal challenge to her nomination will likely be moot because a Senate-Approved Director is likely to be in office within a few months – well before pleadings would be complete on any challenge to Director Lee’s legal authority. However, the comparisons to Dwight Schrute and his role as assistant to the regional manager.
Secret Exclusionary Meeting: Within hours of her announcement as Deputy Director, Director Lee and White House Patent Reform Coordinator Colleen Chien spearheaded a roundtable discussion with a select group of invited guests put forward by the heavily Democratic leaning “Business Forward” community. Business Forward does not lobby, but instead “mak[es] it easier for … business leaders from across America to advise Washington on how to create jobs and accelerate our economic recovery.” The meeting was designated as “off the record” by the PTO and barred press (including Patently-O) from attending as well as leaders from the IPO and the AIPLA. USPTO Spokesman indicated that the meeting was a “normal” and usual event: “Yesterday’s meeting with a group of seasoned patent litigators was part of a normal series of discussions USPTO has facilitated to solicit views on patent reform proposals from various segments of our user community. As legislation moves on to the Senate, we expect to continue to host such normal meetings with various parts of the IP community.”
Now, I do not have a problem with the PTO Director and White House having private meetings, but it does look bad that Director Lee’s first information-gathering discussion is with a private hand-selected group of operatives whose result will likely work to set her vision for patent reforms in ways that cannot be rebutted. Directors Kappos and Rea both pushed strongly for public discussion and my hope is that Director Lee will continue that important trend.