An International Guide to
Patent Case Management for Judges

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10.3.2 Specialized intellectual property judiciary

The U.S. federal judiciary has a mixed approach to patent specialization. Federal district courts have general jurisdiction. Therefore, federal district judges hear a full range of federal cases, ranging from criminal to civil matters. District judges are assisted by federal magistrate judges, law clerks and other court personnel, including general court clerks, administrative assistants and court reporters. Relatively few federal district judges or other district court personnel have scientific or technical backgrounds or patent litigation experience.

The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affords either party the right to have patent cases heard by a jury. Since the mid-1990s, approximately 70 percent of patent cases have been tried to juries. Federal civil juries are randomly selected from lists of registered voters and people with a driver’s license who live in the district in which the case is tried. Jurors rarely have specialized scientific, engineering, or patent law training. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 48 provides that federal juries must contain between 6 and 12 jurors, verdicts must be returned by at least 6 jurors, and that verdicts must be unanimous unless the parties stipulate otherwise.

FRCP 53 and Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 706 authorize district judges to appoint special masters to hear evidence and argument from the parties and render an initial decision on substantive matters, such as claim construction or summary judgment. Special masters may also present testimony at trials. Relatively few courts use such advisors.

By contrast, the Federal Circuit has a specialized docket that includes patent appeals. The Federal Circuit was established to eliminate forum shopping among regional circuit courts and to develop a tribunal with particular expertise in patent law. Several of the 19 active and senior judges of the Federal Circuit have scientific or technical backgrounds, as do many of the law clerks.

The U.S. Supreme Court has general jurisdiction. The nine Justices do not have specialized training or experience in science or technology. At least four of the nine Justices must agree to grant review of cases, and all nine members hear cases as a single panel.