By Jason Rantanen
Happy 2022! As I’ve done for the last few years, below I provide some statistics on what the Federal Circuit has been doing over the past year. These charts draw on the Federal Circuit Dataset Project, which contains information on all Federal Circuit decisions posted to the court’s website and and the court’s dockets.
Figure 1 shows the number of Federal Circuit opinions and Rule 36 summary affirmances by origin since 2010. Once again, the highest number of merits terminations arose from the PTO. The most notable change for 2021 was a drop in the number of decisions arising from the district courts: from 197 in 2020 to 142 in 2021. These represent individual documents (i.e.: a single opinion or Rule 36), not docket numbers, but there’s also a 25% drop when looking at the data on a per-docket number basis. Overall, the Federal Circuit issued 653 merits decisions in regular appeals in 2021 as compared with 690 in 2020.
Figure 2 shows the number of opinions versus Rule 36 summary affirmances arising from the District Courts and PTO. Relative to recent years, the portion of appeals that were summarily affirmed was substantially lower. Thirty-five percent of appeals arising from the PTO were summarily affirmed—much less than 2019, when almost half of the appeals arising from the PTO were Rule 36’d.
You’ll also notice that the number of written opinions that the Federal Circuit issued in appeals arising from the district courts was the lowest it’s been at least since 2010, while the number of written opinions arising from the PTO was the highest. The type of opinion paints a different picture, however: as Figure 3 shows, while around half of the opinions arising from the district courts were designated as “precedential,” only 25% of the opinions arising from the PTO were. To me, Figure 3 suggests that the Federal Circuit perceives that it has addressed many of the novel questions created by the AIA and inter partes review, and sees its jurisprudence as more settled than it was a few years ago.
Interestingly, this does not seem to mean that affirmance rates in appeals arising from the PTO are increasing. For one thing, they’re already quite high: over the past decade, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the PTO about 80% of the time. Nor did they increase in 2021. Last year, the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTO in 78% of its decisions. Another observation is that even though the court’s use of Rule 36’s in appeals arising from the PTO has dropped over the past two years, its affirmance rate has remained about the same.
The Federal Circuit did, however, affirm district courts more frequently last year than any previous year. The average rate at which the court affirmed-in-full district courts from 2010-2021 was 69% (indicated by the purple line); last year its affirmance rate in these appeals was 79%.
I didn’t create a separate graph for dissents and concurrences, but overall Federal Circuit judges wrote about the same number of dissents in 2021 as in 2020 (35 in 2021 versus 37 in 2022), but wrote a lot more concurring opinions (23 in 2021 versus 10 in 2020).
A new addition this year is a dataset of all Federal Circuit dockets since 2000 based on data from PACER. Figure 5 shows the number of appeals docketed at the Federal Circuit by origin. For the past few years, the court has received well over a thousand appeals per year. That number fell a lot in 2021—especially appeals arising from the PTO and the MSPB. (The MSPB has not had a quorum since 2017, and has not had any sitting members since 2019.) The downstream consequence of this is that we can expect to see fewer Federal Circuit decisions in appeals arising from the PTO in 2022.
What about petitions for writs of mandamus? Jonas Anderson, Paul Gugliuzza and I are finishing the draft of our paper on those, but it’s no spoiler to say that orders on petitions for writs of mandamus are a big part of the Federal Circuit story for 2021. Last year the court issued 52 merits orders on petitions for writs of mandamus, as compared with 35 in 2020 and 19 in 2019. For more on those, here’s a link to our series.
You can access the full document dataset here and generate a variety of charts using the widget, or download the data and plug it into your favorite analysis program. In addition, both the docket and document dataset are archived on the Harvard dataverse, along with the Stata code for generating the tables for the above graphs. Methodological details are provided in this working paper. Or, if there are specific aspects of the data that you’re curious about, email me or DM me on Twitter and if I’m able to, I’ll take a look.
Thanks to my research assistants for help reading and coding all of the court’s decisions especially Matt Fuentes, Daniel Kieffer, Brenna Kingyon, Lindsay Kriz, Sara Leibee, Ryan Meger, Madison Murhammer Colon, Charles Neff, Riley Stanton, Connor Williams & Allison Williamson.