Professor Jonas Anderson - “The Federal Circuit and the Policy-Shaping Function of Specialized Appellate Courts”

Faculty Scholarship Highlight, November 2012

Associate Dean for Scholarship Stephen Vladeck talks with Professor Jonas Anderson.

Since its creation in 1982, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has been a frequent subject of academic attention, especially given its unique role as the sole federal court with jurisdiction over patent appeals—a congressional “experiment” in federal appellate specialization. And yet, as American University Washington College of Law Professor Jonas Anderson details in his new article, “Shaping Legislation: The Federal Circuit and Its Relationship With the Legislative Branch,” students and scholars of the Federal Circuit have repeatedly neglected the Federal Circuit’s corresponding relationship with Congress when it comes to the substance of federal patent law, even as they have repeatedly examined the Court of Appeals’ interactions with the U.S. Supreme Court, trial courts, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Indeed, for Anderson, who teaches property and trade secrets at AUWCL (in addition to patent law), closer inspection reveals that, especially in recent patent policy reform debates in Congress, the Federal Circuit has played an important role in influencing not just the terms of the debate but the substance of the legislation actually enacted. As he explains, “The court’s activities demonstrate that the court views itself—and not Congress—as the policy expert in certain areas of patent policy.”

More than merely a descriptive account of the Federal Circuit’s role in the future of federal patent policy, Anderson’s survey of the Federal Circuit’s policy-shaping function also provides a more normative case in favor of such judicial intervention in ongoing policy debates. As he argues, “A Federal Circuit that is actively engaged with policy choices and cognizant of the broader implications of its interpretive activities is more likely than a rigidly formalistic court to strike the appropriate balance between encouraging innovation and enabling competition.” And although the Federal Circuit is a special case, Anderson’s research may open the door to a more holistic reassessment of the role of specialized federal appellate courts in general—not just in exercising the jurisdiction conferred upon them by Congress, but also in helping to influence the present and future direction of the body of law that they are charged with administering.