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Abstract

How is it that the Supreme Court, a generalist court, is leading a project of innovation reform in our times while the court of appeals established to encourage innovation is having its precedent stricken down time and again? This decade the Supreme Court has issued far more patent law decisions than in any decade since the passage of the Patent Act of 1952. In doing so, the Supreme Court has overruled the Federal Circuit in roughly threequarters of the patent cases in which the Supreme Court has issued opinions. In most of these cases, the Supreme Court has established rules that favor accused infringers over patent holders, and the result has been an era of patent litigation reform far more impactful than anything Congress has achieved. Scholars have observed that the Supreme Court tends to overrule Federal Circuit decisions that (1) impose rigid legal rules as opposed to flexible standards; (2) adopt special rules for patent law cases rather than applying general principles of law and equity applicable to all federal cases; and/or (3) fail to grant sufficient discretion to the district courts. This paper examines the twenty-eight Supreme Court opinions overruling the Federal Circuit since 2000 and quantifies their rationales to discover that, while these reasons are often invoked, the Supreme Court’s most common rationale is that the Federal Circuit has disregarded or cabined its older precedent from before the 1982 creation of the Federal Circuit, from before the 1952 Patent Act, and even from before the 20th Century. The Court has relied on this rationale in twenty-one of the twenty-eight cases. The paper then seeks to probe beneath the surface level patterns to discover the deeper roots of the discord between the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit. Constitutional law scholars have observed that the Supreme Court’s policy preferences are the primary, unstated motivation behind its decisions. The Court writes opinions that rely on the flexible tools of precedent and stare decisis in order to implement its policy choices while maintaining its institutional reputation for neutrality. The Court does this by influencing precedent vitality; the Court selects which of its precedent to rely upon and augment and which of its precedent to distinguish and narrow. This process runs in direct conflict with the Federal Circuit, a court that was originally conceived and viewed by some of its members as a court intended to bring uniformity to patent law in a way that would reinvigorate patent rights. The Federal Circuit would implement the 1952 Patent Act in a way that would draw patent law out of the nineteenth century. But for the Supreme Court, the 1952 Act was a mere codification of patent law as developed by the courts for over a hundred years. Hence, the Federal Circuit seeks to influence precedent vitality at direct cross-purposes with the Supreme Court. The result of the Supreme Court’s project has been a new era of common law patent reform in favor of accused infringers, which is gaining momentum as the Supreme Court decides far more patent cases than it has since the passage of the Patent Act of 1952.

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