by Dennis Crouch
The Federal Circuit has denied Leak Survey’s petition for rehearing en banc on the issue R.36. Perhaps ironically, the court has continued to remain silent on its justification for issuing judgments without opinion. Although the Supreme Court has generally empowered appellate courts to issue summary affirmances without explaining reasoning for their judgment, the statutes provide special rules for cases arising from patent and trademark cases. On the patent side, 35 U.S.C. § 144 requires the Federal Circuit to hear appeals from the PTO, “review the decision,” and, once a decision is reached “the court shall issue to the Director its mandate and opinion.”
I argue (as did Leak Survey) that Section 144 requires the court to write opinions in these cases — as was the longstanding standard practice of both the Federal Circuit and its predecessor court the CCPA before the 1989 internal rule changes by the Federal Circuit.
In my article on the topic, I recognize the argument’s weakest point: since the statute requires issuance of “its opinion”, the requirement might only only kick-in if the court actually has an opinion. In his thoughtful challenge to my approach, Matthew J. Dowd argues that the statute only requires issuance of an opinion once such an opinion exists — but absent an opinion, the statute only requires issuance of the mandate. Matthew J. Dowd, An Examination of the Federal Circuit’s Use of Rule 36 Summary Affirmances (Feb. 19, 2017). Thus, Dowd would clarify that the statutory requirement that, after reviewing the case, “the court shall issue … its … opinion” only kicks-in if the court decides to write an opinion. I think Dowd is wrong.
In my article, I write:
For a patentee, providing the written description is part of the quid pro quo exchange for receiving patent rights. In the same way, forming a reasoned decision is the role of every appellate court, and the statute simply requires that those reasons be written and released.
Reaching a judgment in each merits case is both an inherent duty of the appellate court and a statutory requirement, and that judgment requires the court to at least form a reasoned opinion that justifies the outcome. In other words, the court must make its judgment based upon the law at hand applied to the facts presented. Even when issuing a judgment without releasing an opinion, the court must have formed reasons for its judgment that are at least self-satisfyingly sufficient. Anything less would be a reversible arbitrary judgment and likely a violation of the due process rights of the parties.
The statutory requirement of issuing “its … opinion” is not an illusory request that can be avoided by simply not writing an opinion. Rather, the statute requires a transformation of the court’s internal decision justifications into a document that becomes part of the record of the case as it returns to the PTO.
By now, the court has had many opportunities to justify its approach. It is now becoming more than simply ironic that the Federal Circuit continues to avoid explaining its justifications for a lack of transparency.