PTAB Judges and the Lack of an Applicable Ethics Code

Someone reached out to me and pointed out that Gene Quinn over on ipwatchdog is quite upset by the fact that there is no code of judicial ethics specific to PTAB judges and the like. His latest article, of many, is here.  That’s a good idea.

There should be a specific and distinct set of ethical rules applicable to them. I’m not sure there isn’t one already. 28 USC 455 applies to all federal judges, including somewhat analogous magistrates, and could be interpreted to extend to them. (I doubt it, but I haven’t researched it.)  If it doesn’t, the USPTO could by regulation (or internal operating procedure, perhaps) simply adopt the language of Section 455 and get this done.  And it should.

Mr. Quinn goes on at length about alleged personal unethical conduct, and makes some sharp accusations and personal attacks that I don’t want to leave any impression that I agree with.

But some of his accusations arise from his belief about legal ethics or federal law that go directly to the idea of the substance of a code and so I’ll touch on those limited ones, and only some of those.  For example, Mr. Quinn writes  “there is no time limit on a duty to a former client, at least if you are a patent practitioner. So the 1-year recusal period is wholly without precedent and inappropriate for PTAB judges.”  Likewise, Mr. Quinn states that federal law governing Article III judges “has specific provisions that would seem to absolutely prohibit a judge from handling a case where a litigant is a former client.”

Neither argument should be taken seriously in crafting a PTAB code.

With respect to lawyers, pretty much every jurisdiction recognizes there is a “time limit” (as he puts it).  It works this way:  I can be adverse to a former client if information I learned from the former representation has become generally known or has become “stale.”  So there is a “time limit” of sorts, by rule in most jurisdictions and in case law in others so far as I know.

As for judges, there is no prohibition against a judge ever adjudicating a dispute involving even a former client the lawyer personally represented.  No, the federal statute regulating Article III judges (and magistrates) (28 USC 455) and the Code of Judicial Conduct don’t state some  minimum amount of time that must pass after a lawyer represents a client before she can judge a dispute involving that former client. But, with the federal judiciary, two years seems to be the outside long “norm” for a judge to wait before adjudicating cases involving former clients the judge actually and personally represented.  See, e.g., Sphere Drake Ins. Ltd. v. All Am. Life Ins. Co., 307 F.3d 617, 621-22 (7th Cir. 2002) (“The norm among new appointees to the bench is that once two years pass, perhaps even earlier, a judge is free to sit in controversies involving former clients”) (emph. added)).

My point is that having a set of rules specific to adjudicative officials is probably a good idea.  I do hope the USPTO takes the idea to adopt a set of rules applicable to adjudicative officials seriously, both to encourage confidence in the system and to avoid subjecting officials to criticism unanchored to a well-known standard like Section 455.

About David

Professor of Law, Mercer University School of Law. Formerly Of Counsel, Taylor English Duma, LLP and in 2012-13, judicial clerk to Chief Judge Rader.

5 thoughts on “PTAB Judges and the Lack of an Applicable Ethics Code

  1. 3

    Ever since King John faced the rebel barons at Runnymede and consented to what we now know to be the Magna Carta, the effort to provide for due process under the rule of law has been a continuous one. Any man has a right to due process and a trial by jury where his life, liberty or property are at stake. The most essential principle though is that the judge or judges be impartial. When a judge’s salary is set by the King, or if he sits at the pleasure of the King, he is not independent whether or not he is a good man. Our declaration of independence cited to this very principle in its list of grievances against the Crown.

    No matter how you dress them up, call them judges, or bow, scrape or curtsy, PTAB judges will never be impartial judges under the standards set by our Constitution and as prescribed by the Magna Carta. And yet, they decide the legal validity of patents and cancel them against the will of their owners.

    The framers would be aghast at such a system.

  2. 2

    Thanks for mentioning my articles. Next time please try and read the article and comprehend them before commenting on them in such an egregiously ridiculous fashion. It is as if the author wanted to purposefully take what I wrote out of context, and did actually misrepresent what I wrote in many regards. Shameful coming from an alleged expert in the field of ethics.

    What we do not for certain is there is no code applicable to PTAB judges. The USPTO has confirmed that through my FOIA request. As for everything else, for those who seriously want to know what I wrote I’m sure you know how to find my original reporting. We’ve done many articles on this topic and my thoughts and analysis can’t be appropriately, or accurately, represented in a few swipes by someone who has a personal grudge against me.

  3. 1

    IF you are going to look into this, one aspect that caught my attention from Mr. Quinn’s last writing was the notion that the Executive Branch – by dictate of the commander of that branch – set out to have one, and only one, set of ethics rules.

    If that is true (and perhaps one can quickly check to see if any other administrative agency has a set of ethics rules for their own “judicial” functions), then the thought of changing that single set of ethics rules with any change (not just 28 USC 455) is a non-starter (until the executive orders are modified to permit such).

    1. 1.1

      Thanks. I didn’t intend to move much further into this issue, but that’s good to know!

Comments are closed.