This dismissive attitude toward Supreme Court precedents apparently survives to this day among patent lawyers. In the wake of this year’s decision limiting patents on the practice of medicine, patent attorney Gene Quinn wondered, “How long will it take the Federal Circuit to overrule this inexplicable nonsense?” Obviously, the Federal Circuit can’t “overrule” a Supreme Court decision. But with enough persistence, it can, and often does, subvert the principles enunciated by the nation’s highest court. And when it does so, it almost always works in the direction of making patents easier to obtain and enforce.
What explains the Federal Circuit’s relentless pro-patent bias? One obvious theory is what economists call “regulatory capture”: the theory that over time, public officials will come to identify with the interest groups they are supposed to be supervising. The theory is usually applied to regulatory agencies in the executive branch (think FCC commissioners becoming Comcast lobbyists), but the theory seems to fit the Federal Circuit as well.