I invited Prof. Dmitry Karshtedt to provide this discussion of today’s oral arguments in Oil States. Note, Prof. Karshtedt filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the petitioner. Read the transcript here. – DC
By Prof. Dmitry Karshtedt
This morning’s argument in Oil States v. Greene’s Energy saw a highly engaged bench. The wide-ranging argument covered everything from the expected topics of the public-private right divide and the significance of the Privy Council’s adjudications of patent rights to perhaps more surprising angles involving government takings and even disputes between travelers and airlines over lost bags.
Some of the main themes of the argument:
- Does the PTAB in the IPR exercise judicial power at all?
- How, if at all, are IPRs are different from reexams?
- What about the patentees’ settled expectations? Do they justify some form of heightened judicial review before an issued patent in existence for some time can be taken away?
- Are Due Process issues fundamentally tied to the Article III question raised in this case, or should “power” and “process” be distinguished?
- Can the PTAB adjudicate infringement?
- Do Federal Circuit appeals represent constitutionally adequate Article III supervision of the PTAB?
Allyson Ho, Oil States’ counsel, lead with the argument that Inter Partes Reviews (IPRs) embody an unconstitutional transfer of judicial power to decide claims of private right between private parties without party consent or adequate Article III supervision. Justice Ginsburg asked almost immediately whether IPRs merely allow for correction of the PTO’s own errors. Ms. Ho then made an important strategic decision in conceding that, while ex parte and inter partes reexams (though a closer case) present permissible, examination-like error-correcting proceedings, IPRs differ from those earlier mechanisms because they more closely resemble an adjudication of a private-party dispute in which the PTO acts as an arbiter. Justice Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts questioned whether there is really a salient difference between IPRs and reexaminations, as the latter too allow for a process by which a third party informs the PTO that particular prior art may render an issued patent unpatentable after all. Ms. Ho, in response, stressed the high degree of third party involvement and the trial-like nature of the proceedings. In addition, she argued that in case of settlement, the PTAB generally does not complete the IPR.
The argument then moved toward the role of Congress in creating the patent right. Surely, suggested Justice Kennedy, Congress can validly limit the patent term and perhaps even shorten the patent term after issuance, so why not IPR? The response appeared to be that a grant of a patent cannot be conditioned on giving up structural rights, harkening to the discussion of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine in the petitioner’s reply brief. Even though Congress can create rights, there is a constitutional limits on how those rights can be restricted. The Chief Justice then mentioned the law of takings, suggesting that the government can take actions that devalue the right, with the Fifth Amendment sometimes entitling the aggrieved rights-holder to compensation.
The discussion then moved on to topics that have been particularly well-aired in party and amicus briefs. First, Justice Ginsburg continued to press the error correction point, pointing out that IPRs are relatively narrow in scope in that only issues of novelty and non-obviousness with specific types of prior art can be resolved in those proceedings. Ms. Ho responded that, be that as it may, 80% of IPRs also involve concurrent district court litigation, with infringement actions getting dismissed when PTAB invalidates the patent at issue. Second, Justice Gorsuch brought up the McCormick Harvesting case and its possible constitutional basis, a point which Ms. Ho embraced, but Justice Kagan then suggested that McCormick, rather, was resolved on statutory grounds. There was no further discussion of McCormick.
Ms. Ho then returned to the line between IPRs and reexams, and the earlier point that the former are really about deciding a cause between parties in a trial-like proceeding. Justice Breyer, at this point, suggested that, even if this were so, non-Article III tribunals do this all the time anyhow, as when resolving disputes between travelers and airlines over lost luggage. In addition, Justice Breyer suggested, doesn’t the Patent Act’s phrase “subject to the provisions of this title” puts patentees on notice that post-issuance non-Article III patentability determinations are possible? A point was repeated that IPRs are about an agency figuring out whether it made a mistake, with third party-input, as frequently happens in many administrative proceeding. Moreover, Ms. Ho was questioned as to how much third-party participation is needed to make a process unconstitutional. She returned to the idea of significant third party-control.
Justice Gorsuch then brought up the point that, if patents are private rights, no non-Article III adjudication of any sort is permissible. A question then arose whether analysis would change if the IPRs existed since 1790, the year that the first Patent Act was passed, and the discussion then moved to the Privy Council. Justice Kagan observed that the role of the Privy Council in adjudging patentability over time waned but was not eliminated. Before reserving time for rebuttal, Ms. Ho made the point that the patent laws were closely intertwined with the common law from the time of the Statute of Monopolies.
Mr. Christopher Kise, arguing for Greene’s Energy, argued that IPRs simply reexamine the propriety of the original patent grant, which is not a judicial function. The action is not to extinguish the patent but simply to decide that it should not issue. In addition, argued Mr. Kise, even if the Court had to get to the public-private right distinction, it should readily conclude that patents are public rights that can be adjudicated outside Article III tribunals. At this point, an interesting question came from Justice Breyer – what about settled expectations of the patentee after some time from issuance goes by? What about investments and reliance interests? The implication seemed to be that, while of course patents can always be invalidated by courts, perhaps heightened judicial review is needed to take patents away after some time in their existence.
The Chief Justice then raised the point of Due Process and PTAB panel-stacking, and whether Congress’ power to take away patents can allow patent validity to become a pure policy tool of the executive branch. Mr. Kise contended that Due Process problems, if any, should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Justice Sotomayor brought up the point of judicial review of PTAB determinations at the Federal Circuit, to which Justice Gorsuch responded that the PTAB is not an adjunct of the district courts and can issue self-executing judgments. He also brought up the issue of vested rights in land grands. To that, Mr. Kise responded that land is core property interest in the way that patents are not, because the latter depend on the federal statute and exist for an instrumental purpose of promoting the progress of useful arts. He also contended that process issues should be separated from power issues.
As Malcolm Stewart began arguing for the government, the Chief Justice framed the point of “bitter versus the sweet” – whether the government can condition the grant of a patent on anything it likes, including stacking of the deck in PTAB proceedings. Mr. Stewart responded that, even if there were a Due Process problem, Due Process does not require Article III, as public employee tenure protection cases show. He also mentioned that expanded panels are not unlike en banc panels in the federal circuit courts, and exist principally to correct panels that diverged from precedents. Justice Breyer then brought up the issue that the IPR statute is applied retroactively to the patent at issue in this case. Mr. Stewart’s response was that patents could be reexamined since 1980 and could be invalidated in certain proceedings before then, and they could always be invalidated by courts.
Returning to the public-private rights debate, Chief Justice Roberts discussed the Schor test and whether the multi-factor analysis of Schor is conducive to investment backed-expectations. Mr. Stewart contended that, whatever the test, PTAB adjudicates private rights because liability for past money damages are not involved. The question then came up whether the PTAB can adjudicate infringement, to which Mr. Stewart responded that probably not because money damages are involved. Justice Gorsuch then asked whether the PTAB can perhaps declare non-infringement, to which Mr. Stewart responded that there is no tradition of the PTO’s making that determination. Justice Gorsuch asked about the PTO’s tradition of cancelling patents, and Mr. Stewart’s response was that the issue is really about deciding patentability, which the PTO has been doing since 1836.
In rebuttal, Ms. Ho reiterated her point that Congress cannot condition a grant of a patent on taking away litigants’ structural rights and reinforced the point that appeals are not a sufficient form of Article III supervision. She ended with the point that, again, IPRs resolve disputes between two private parties.