April 27, 2018—Five months ago to the day, I predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold inter partes review (“IPR”) proceedings at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”) as constitutional in Oil States v. Greene Energy. On April 24, 2018, the Court so-held.
Back in November, the questions at oral argument in Oil States raised numerous intriguing issues:
- Whether IPR proceedings are “examinational” rather than “adjudicatory.”
- Distinctions between “public rights” and “private rights.”
- The relevance of 19th-century cases on patents, such as McCormick v. Aultman.
- The interplay of due process, given a patentee’s usually-substantial investment in the patented invention and reliance on the patent grant.
- Opportunities for subsequent appellate review.
So which of these became the deciding issues in the Court’s opinion? Ironically, Justice Thomas–who has been known to refrain from questions at oral argumentand was the only Justice not to ask a question during oral argument in this case–wrote for the 7-Justice majority. Justice Gorsuch wrote a dissenting opinion.
First, the majority held that IPR proceedings do not violate separation of powers by invading the sphere of the Judiciary under Article III of the Constitution:
When determining whether a proceeding involves an exercise of Article III judicial power, this Court’s precedents have distinguished between “public rights” and “private rights.” Those precedents have given Congress significant latitude to assign adjudication of public rights to entities other than Article III courts.
Recognizing that the Court has not been clear on this distinction, the Court provided some clarity:
[T]he public-rights doctrine applies to matters “‘arising between the government and others, which from their nature do not require judicial determination and yet are susceptible of it.’” Inter partes review involves one such matter: reconsideration of the Government’s decision to grant a public franchise.
Inter partes review falls squarely within the public-rights doctrine. This Court has recognized, and the parties do not dispute, that the decision to grant a patent is a matter involving public rights—specifically, the grant of a public franchise. Inter partes review is simply a reconsideration of that grant, and Congress has permissibly reserved the PTO’s authority to conduct that reconsideration. Thus, the PTO can do so without violating Article III.
The Court went on to incorporate Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”:
Congress can grant patents itself by statute. And, from the founding to today, Congress has authorized the Executive Branch to grant patents that meet the statutory requirements for patentability. When the PTO “adjudicate[s] the patentability of inventions,” it is “exercising the executive power.”
Inter partes review is “a second look at an earlier administrative grant of a patent.” The Board considers the same statutory requirements that the PTO considered when granting the patent…. So, like the PTO’s initial review, the Board’s inter partes review protects “the public’s paramount interest in seeing that patent monopolies are kept within their legitimate scope,” Thus, inter partes review involves the same interests as the determination to grant a patent in the first instance.
The primary distinction between inter partes review and the initial grant of a patent is that inter partes review occurs after the patent has issued. But that distinction does not make a difference here. Patent claims are granted subject to the qualification that the PTO has “the authority to reexamine—and perhaps cancel—a patent claim” in an inter partes review. Patents thus remain “subject to [the Board’s] authority” to cancel outside of an Article III court.
This Court has recognized that franchises can be qualified in this manner. For example, Congress can grant a franchise that permits a company to erect a toll bridge, but qualify the grant by reserving its authority to revoke or amend the franchise.
The Court then went on to distinguish 19th-century cases appearing to state that patents are private, not public, rights:
To be sure, two of the cases make broad declarations that “[t]he only authority competent to set a patent aside, or to annul it, or to correct it for any reason whatever, is vested in the courts of the United States, and not in the department which issued the patent.” (citing McCormick) But those cases were decided under the Patent Act of 1870. That version of the Patent Act did not include any provision for post-issuance administrative review. Those precedents, then, are best read as a description of the statutory scheme that existed at that time. They do not resolve Congress’ authority under the Constitution to establish a different scheme.
The Court also noted that even the English legal system, from which the U.S. derives many of its principles, contained a similar patent revocation process by petition to the Privy Council:
The Patent Clause in our Constitution “was written against the backdrop” of the English system. Based on the practice of the Privy Council, it was well understood at the founding that a patent system could include a practice of granting patents subject to potential cancellation in the executive proceeding of the Privy Council. The parties have cited nothing in the text or history of the Patent Clause or Article III to suggest that the Framers were not aware of this common practice. Nor is there any reason to think they excluded this practice during their deliberations.
For similar reasons, we disagree with the dissent’s assumption that, because courts have traditionally adjudicated patent validity in this country, courts must forever continue to do so.
The Court also rejected the argument that because IPR “looks like” the exercise of Article III judicial power, it is infringing on that power. And it “emphasize[d] the narrowness of [its] holding,” noting that appellant Oil States had not raised a due process challenge. Finally, the Court held that IPR proceedings do not abridge the “right of trial by jury” under the Seventh Amendment because Congress properly assigned the matter of patent rights to adjudication before the PTAB.
Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor concurred, stating only that the opinion “should not be read to say that matters involving private rights may never be adjudicated other than by Article III courts, say, sometimes by agencies.”
Justices Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts dissented:
Today, the government invites us to retreat from the promise of judicial independence. Until recently, most everyone considered an issued patent a personal right—no less than a home or farm—that the federal government could revoke only with the concurrence of independent judges. But in the statute before us Congress has tapped an executive agency, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, for the job. Supporters say this is a good thing because the Patent Office issues too many low quality patents; allowing a subdivision of that office to clean up problems after the fact, they assure us, promises an efficient solution. And, no doubt, dispensing with constitutionally prescribed procedures is often expedient. Whether it is the guarantee of a warrant before a search, a jury trial before a conviction—or, yes, a judicial hearing before a property interest is stripped away—the Constitution’s constraints can slow things down. But economy supplies no license for ignoring these—often vitally inefficient—protections. The Constitution “reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs,” and it is not our place to replace that judgment with our own.
This dissent is not at all surprising, given that during oral argument both Justices asked questions that suggested they doubted that patents were public rights. It goes on to say:
Article III, explains that the federal “judicial Power” is vested in independent judges. As originally understood, the judicial power extended to “suit[s] at the common law, or in equity, or admiralty.” From this and as we’ve recently explained, it follows that, “[w]hen a suit is made of the stuff of the traditional actions at common law tried by the courts at Westminster in 1789 … and is brought within the bounds of federal jurisdiction, the responsibility for deciding that suit rests with” Article III judges endowed with the protections for their independence the framers thought so important.
The dissent disputed the relevance and value of the references to the Privy Council, colorfully stating that the cases cited by the majority “represent the Privy Council’s dying gasp in this area.” And Justice Gorsuch embarked on a history lesson about the early years of our Republic. Wrapping up, the dissent expressed concern:
Today’s decision may not represent a rout but it at least signals a retreat from Article III’s guarantees. Ceding to the political branches ground they wish to take in the name of efficient government may seem like an act of judicial restraint. But enforcing Article III isn’t about protecting judicial authority for its own sake. It’s about ensuring the people today and tomorrow enjoy no fewer rights against governmental intrusion than those who came before. And the loss of the right to an independent judge is never a small thing. It’s for that reason Hamilton warned the judiciary to take “all possible care … to defend itself against” intrusions by the other branches. It’s for that reason I respectfully dissent.
As demonstrated by the Court’s opinion and the dissent, the primary issue was whether patents were public or private rights. The majority held they were public, between the government and the grantee, and its other holdings flowed from that decision. The dissent deemed patents private, akin to land grants and other personally-held rights, citing cases such as McCormick. In the end, due process did not play a role in the majority’s decision, but seemed to justify the dissent’s view that IPR proceedings are a form of Executive Branch encroachment. Given the majority’s explicitly-narrow holding and the dissent’s concerns, my guess is that the Court will be revisiting Oil States on a related issue in the near future. As always, stay tuned!