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May 26, 2014
Is it Time to Abolish the CAFC?
That's the question raised in a Gigaom piece this week from Jeff John Roberts
The proximate cause is that the Chief Justice of the CAFC is stepping down from the Chief spot and the Court has had to re-issue two opinions in which soon-to-be-ex Chief Judge Randall Rader was involved. Rader recused himself from those cases, but not before he had been involved in the decisions (oops!). To make matters worse, the reasons for recusal involved ethical improprieties on Rader's part that call into question his fitness to serve as a judge at all. Rader effectively endorsed a lawyer, in a manner similar to an author giving a blurb for a novel they enjoyed.
Judges at all levels are supposed to be as impartial as humanly possible. Giving an endorsement to a lawyer - let alone one who might appear before your bar - is just not done. Yes, we know that judges are mostly former lawyers, and nobody expects them suddenly to drop their private friendships with other lawyers. But there needs to be at least some professional distance.
What Roberts (and see also Mike Masnick's analysis on Techdirt) argues is that this is just one more nail in the coffin of what has become a dysfunctional and often disastrous experiment.
The CAFC was created in 1982 in order to merge two courts that were hearing and often competing in rulings over patents. The theory was that there should be one highest court for patent cases, which would lead to more uniformity and that this unified court would be able to delve into the more technical matters that patents often require. Unfortunately, the CAFC seems to have spun more and more out of control,
They can't seem to agree on basics of patent law, it has been assigning itself additional powers of patent review and in general seems to be living up to the "rogue court" label that Timothy B Lee pasted on it back in 2012.
Unfortunately, while I agree with the esteemed trio of Lee, Roberts & Masnick, I don't see a better option. If we abolish the CAFC then lots more patent cases are going to end up at the Supreme Court. Given what a mess they make of patent law (and the underlying science) on a regular basis I am not encouraged by this prospect. The CAFC seems to be yet another example of how regulatory capture works in Washington, and we are all much worse off as a result.
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