Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jurisdictional jurisdiction

Have you ever wanted to shout at someone, "You're out of your jurisdiction!!"?  I have.  In fact, I've done it a couple of times.  In both cases, I was standing outside a bar speaking to a bouncer. 

Oddly, I was reminded of these moments today when I read the case of Warrior Sports Inc. v. Dickinson Wright, PLLC, which the Federal Circuit court of appeals decided yesterday.  It's a legal malpractice case stemming from a patent litigation that settled because the patent attorneys had failed to pay maintenance fees and therefore allowed the patent to lapse.  The main issue for the Federal Circuit was whether there was federal subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1338 (which gives federal courts the exclusive jurisdiction over cases "relating to patents")  even lthough this is fundamentally a state-law legal malpractice case.  The court's answer, ultimately, is yes:  there is federal jurisdiction because deciding the malpractice claim necessarily requires resolution of a substantial question of patent law. 

But before it gives this answer, the court entertains a kind of meta-jurisdictional question:  does it have jurisdiction to consider the jurisdictional question?  This is kind of wonky, but the Federal Circuit is a special, national appellate court with limited jurisdiction to hear only certain kinds of appeals--including appeals of cases arising under § 1338.  The appellee here argued that the Federal Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction to decide the subject matter jurisdiction question because the district court had already decided that the case did not arise under § 1338.  Thus, according to the appellee, the case should have been appealed to the regional circuit court of appeals, not the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit disagreed, noting that it would be an "absurd result" if the Federal Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction to determine whether a district court correctly interpreted the statute governing patent jurisdiction, even though the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals involving substantive patent law.

So we can sleep well tonight knowing that the Federal Circuit does indeed have jurisdiction to adjudicate jurisdictional judgments concerning patents.

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