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Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director:

The complaint is here; it alleges that Deputy PTO Director Margaret Peterlin lacks the statutorily required "professional background and experience in patent or trademark law."

I can't speak to whether the deputy director in fact lacks such background and experience. Her biography doesn't stress much of it, though it points to quite substantial general legal credentials; but according to the Washington Post, patent office spokeswoman Brigid Quinn reported that "Peterlin has 'had direct involvement in oversight of the USPTO and every piece of patent, trademark and copyright-related legislation considered on the House floor over the past five years.'"

I'm more interested in the institutional question here: What should courts do with vague criteria such as "shall ... [have] a professional background and experience in patent or trademark law," criteria that give no instructions about the level of background and experience required? I'm not an administrative law expert, but I'm inclined to say that this is the sort of judgment that is left to the Director (and, indirectly, to the Secretary of Commerce and the President, who can decide to remove the Deputy Director), not to courts. But I'd love to hear what administrative law experts have to say about this, and about other procedural questions that this lawsuit raises.

Thanks to Michael Hall for the pointer.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director Rejected:
  2. More troublemaking Volokhs:
  3. Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director:
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More troublemaking Volokhs:

Remember the lawsuit challenging the qualifications of the Deputy Director of the Patent & Trademark Office? As was hinted at in the first two comments to that post a few months ago, Hanah Metchis Volokh, a recent addition to the clan, has just written what is sure to become the definitive piece on the subject, called "The Two Appointments Clauses: Statutory Qualifications for Federal Officers." Here's the abstract:

Congress often exercises control over appointments to federal office by writing job qualifications and putting them directly into the statute creating the office. This practice is best examined by viewing the Appointments Clause not as a single entity, but as two related clauses that set up two very different methods of appointment: presidential nomination and Senate confirmation as the default method, and vesting in one of three authorized positions as an optional alternative method for certain types of officers. When creating an office, Congress must choose one of these methods for appointing the officer, but cannot create a hybrid method combining the two procedures.

In this article, I examine the text, history, and structure of the Constitution to determine what is required by each of the two appointments processes. I conclude that statutory qualifications are consistent with the Constitution's process for vested appointments, but inconsistent with the nomination and confirmation process.

Hanah's article will soon be published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law.

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Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director Rejected:

I blogged about this suit in July:

The complaint ... alleges that Deputy PTO Director Margaret Peterlin lacks the statutorily required "professional background and experience in patent or trademark law."

I can't speak to whether the deputy director in fact lacks such background and experience.... I'm more interested in the institutional question here: What should courts do with vague criteria such as "shall ... [have] a professional background and experience in patent or trademark law," criteria that give no instructions about the level of background and experience required? I'm not an administrative law expert, but I'm inclined to say that this is the sort of judgment that is left to the Director (and, indirectly, to the Secretary of Commerce and the President, who can decide to remove the Deputy Director), not to courts. But I'd love to hear what administrative law experts have to say about this, and about other procedural questions that this lawsuit raises.

Last week, a federal district court rejected the lawsuit, reasoning in relevant part:

Two of plaintiffs’ three claims appear to be brought directly under 35 U.S.C. § 3(b), the statute which structures the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and creates the office of the Deputy Director which is held by Ms. Peterlin. Defendant argues that there is no private cause of action under this statute, and plaintiffs have functionally conceded this argument by failing to respond. Nor would a response have made much difference: neither the text nor the legislative history of the statute evinces anything approaching the congressional intent required to establish a private cause of action -– that is, intent to create both a private right and a private remedy.

One of plaintiffs’ three claims invokes Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which ... does provide a cause of action for persons aggrieved by final agency decisions that are arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. A claim alleging violation of the standard in 35 U.S.C. § 3(b) is unreviewable under the APA, however, because 35 U.S.C. § 3(b) lacks standards that a court could meaningfully use in evaluating this type of high-level personnel decision. Because the only statutory standard is vague and highly subjective, the decision whom to appoint Deputy Director must be considered “committed to agency discretion by law.”

The presumption must be that decisions involving high-level policymaking personnel are left primarily to the executive. In such a situation, one would expect Congress to speak in precise terms if it intended the courts to monitor the minimal qualifications for agency officers. Here, Congress has given only the broadest of instructions -– that the Deputy Director should have “a professional background and experience in patent or trademark law.” The statute is silent as to the content of those terms. Were the decision subjected to APA review, the Court -– not Congress -– would be the ultimate source of the standards by which the qualifications of Ms. Peterlin would be judged: Is a law degree necessary? Is it sufficient? Are law school courses in intellectual property a requirement? Is certification to practice before the USPTO? Is law firm experience? How many years? If Congress had intended the extraordinary situation in which judicial review would reach to the very qualifications of agency officers for their policymaking positions, its statute would not be drawn “in such broad terms that ... there is no law to apply.”

Thanks to reader Michael Hall for the pointer.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director Rejected:
  2. More troublemaking Volokhs:
  3. Lawsuit Challenging Qualifications of Deputy Patent & Trademark Office Director:
25 Comments