' Nathaniel Cook | MTTLR

Arthrex, PTAB, and the Unitary Executive

Patent law is often thought of as a statutory area of law, governed primarily by Title 35 of the U.S. Code and the long history of judicial opinions interpreting it. But with the passage of the AIA came the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the rapid expansion of the role of the USPTO in not only granting patents, but in adjudicating disputes over them. Suddenly, administrative law was a fundamental piece of the puzzle of patent litigation. And while the PTAB has faced challenges to its validity and authority since, the Supreme Court seems to have ruled that, for now, it’s here to stay. This doesn’t mean that PTAB’s path forward is free of any administrative hurdles, however. As is evident in United States v. Arthrex, Inc. (which heard oral arguments at the Supreme Court this March), the new frontier of administrative patent trials comes with the typical issues of constitutionality other administrative courts have encountered. In Arthrex, the familiar issue of the principal/inferior status of administrative officers is center-stage, with Smith & Nephew and the United States arguing for Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) as inferior officers (and thus preserving the current system where APJs are appointed solely by the Secretary of Commerce) while Arthrex touts them as principal officers (whose appointments require the advice and consent of the Senate). The ultimate decision of the Supreme Court likely won’t cause a major shift in what technologies are granted patents, or even in the administrative process around patent disputes. After all, even if the Court determines the APJs to be unconstitutionally appointed, the system can stay so long...