Oil States: a Very Slippery Slope

In a narrow but still huge decision today, Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group, the U.S. Supreme Court today relegated patents and challenges to them as more a public, as opposed to a private, right.  Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Court that under the “public-rights doctrine” great latitude is accorded  in allowing the adjudication of “public rights” by non-Article III adjudicators, e.g., political appointees.  The Court held that Article III federal judges (life appointment, more independent) are not needed in Inter Partes Review patent challenge proceedings at the USPTO, where a private challenger can seek the invalidation of a patent under the auspices of a USPTO Board, where the “judges” are subject to the Director and other political appointees that “adjudicate” the patent right.  This particular point was made manifest when a former Director allegedly sought to overturn Patent Board decisions not to her liking by appointing more judges to skew the judgment (panel stacking).

Also,  the majority, looking to history, viewed patents, particularly some patent challenges, as not being entitled, under the common law of the 18th century and beyond, to trials  by jury.   Indeed, the Court held that the Patent Clause in the Constitution, at the founding of the patent system, inherently included a contemplation for potential cancellation proceedings.  Even though Justice Gorsuch in his dissent seriously questioned this interpretation, the Court said that the “historical practice” of the courts over the last two centuries does not matter because under the “public-rights doctrine” the USPTO is perfectly ok today.  Thus, with this finding, patentees are also not entitled to jury trials under the Seventh Amendment since there is no private property taking involved.

In the decision, Justice Thomas sought to narrow the conclusion of the Court today to just the constitutionality of these IPR proceedings, and not extend this viewpoint to other contexts of patents, leaving the “private property” notion for some patent rights hanging.  In his dissent, Justice Gorsuch lucidly contested the majority’s viewpoints and the holding, considering it as dispensing “with constitutionally prescribed procedures” for expediency and a “retreat” from constitutional guarantees for citizens.  Indeed, the majority seemed to interpret the jurisprudence and the historical context quite differently than Justice Gorsuch, viewing the case as an administrative correction, as opposed to a patent case.   The injustice of this decision will have enormous ramifications.

However, as a practical matter, the Justices as a whole were perhaps loathe to invalidate IPR and the thousands of Board decisions made so far, and thus instead stretched the Administrative State to now include IPR patent rights, forfeiting the parties’ private patent rights.  As noted in the oral argument, this decision takes patent rights back to the days of supreme rulers, such as Elizabeth I, where the patent “monopoly” is entirely subject to the ruler’s whim, granting and taking, instead of a patent system for creating a protected and secured private property right.  Here, the government giveth and government can taketh away.  Patents are just franchises, like taxi medallions, under the view of the majority.  Our Founders shudder.

With only two Justices viewing patents as private instruments, Gorsuch and Roberts, this does not bode well for the future.  Congress needs to act to fix this.  However, with the insidious influence of the tech lobbyists to squelch private innovation and future technology challenges by any means, it is doubtful that Congress will step up.   Thus, in due course, when the next Court challenge accrues encroaching on patent rights, we will again be faced with a majority of the Justices deeming patents as another administrative right to be curtailed, instead of the special instruments they are for the private citizen to contribute to Society as a whole, as our Founders intended, by getting a short-term incentive to innovate.  Liberal IPR proceedings over the last few years, invalidating many valuable patents, have significantly undermined the importance and value of patents, the consequences for which are being felt by entrepreneurs, inventors and investors for future technologies.  Today’s decision perpetuates this injustice, much to the delight of our world competitors.

With the value of patents being diminished, and today’s decision is a further diminishment, innovation in America is suffering, the next cures for diseases are compromised, the next valuable app is being thwarted, and the American spirit of invention further quelled.  All because a majority of our Justices deem the patent system as something not deserving of constitutional protections, which is in direct conflict with the Court’s own history and jurisprudence.  The only good news of late is the appointment of Andrei Iancu as Director of the USPTO, who is changing the dialogue.  Hopefully, the Justices will consider patentees not as trolls, but as important keystones to our success as a nation.