by Dennis Crouch
Louis D. Brandeis was a famous lawyer long before becoming a Supreme Court Justice. In the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon, Brandeis represented the State of Oregon defending the state’s rule restricting the number of hours that women could work in certain industries. In defense of the law, Brandeis filed a brief that presented social science research and empirical evidence to support the argument that long working hours had negative effects on women’s health and family life. That evidence helped sway the court and also spawned the “Brandeis brief” — an approach that continue to be a popular mechanism for attempting to influence the Supreme Court. Brandeis briefs typically include lots of facts and claims about how the world works and ask the court to use those facts in its interpretation of the law. One key problem with this approach is that it does not follow the usual rules of evidence required for factual findings. And, when the Supreme Court adopts the findings, then the facts suddenly become the law and binding precedent. Thus, Muller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court precedentially concluded that it was uniquely risky for women to work long hours and that their natural caregiver role would be improperly disrupted. Today, we might recognize that those conclusions included inherent cultural biases rather than stemming from the nature of women.
A major problem with this sort of evidentiary submission directly to the Supreme Court is that it is unchecked and admittedly biased — these are sent to the court in briefs advocating a particular point of view and without the ordinary judicial evidentiary process. But, proponents of Brandeis briefs argue that the rules don’t apply to these “legislative facts” because the evidence is being used to interpret the law rather than make case-specific factual conclusions. This is much the same approach as the Court uses to determine historical facts for originalist decisions. But, many historians would agree that history as defined in Supreme Court cases appears to be cherry-picked in order to achieve a particular results.
In patent cases, we often have Brandeis briefs on the policy impact of certain choices. In addition, we also regularly see attempts to explain the science to the justices in ways that help lead them to a particular conclusion. In Amgen, for instance, Nobel Prize winner Gregory Winter submitted a brief explaining that antibody design is extremely unpredictable and, because of that, broad functional claims should not be allowed. Amgen contended that some of the evidence Winter relied upon had been excluded by the trial court, and thus should not be reintroduced to the Court. But, the practice is likely to persist.