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Court to rule on patent appeals (UPDATED)

The Supreme Court, continuing its close interest in patent law, agreed on Monday to spell out the power of the special federal appeals court to review trial court rulings on the scope of invention claims in a patent dispute.  The new case is Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., involving Teva’s patent protection for its wide-selling drug Copaxone, used to reduce the frequency of relapses of multiple sclerosis.  The case will be heard in the next Term that starts in October.

The Court turned aside two attempts by religious groups to get the Court to review now, before a federal appeals courts does, the validity of the government’s rules intended to exempt religious employers from having to obey the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate.  The two cases are due to be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 8.  (The petitions were Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Sebelius and Priests for Life v. Health and Human Services Department.)

The Teva patent dispute was the only new case granted on Monday.  However, the Court allowed the federal government to join in as a party in an already pending dispute between the states of Texas and New Mexico over water rights (docket 141 Original).  The government’s role will be to defend its own interests in the allocation of water from the government-operated Rio Grande Project.

In the Teva case, the issue is the division of roles between a trial court — a U.S. district court — and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit over the interpretation of the claims that an inventor makes for a product or process.  While federal appeals courts normally are to review the factual conclusions drawn by a district court only to see if they were “clearly erroneous,” the Federal Circuit for more than fifteen years has followed the practice of construing the claims made by an inventor, using its own independent judgment (technically, de novo review).  The issue the Justices will decide is whether to require the Federal Circuit to follow the customary approach.

Although a number of Teva’s patents on the drug Copaxone have expired, it still has exclusive rights on some aspects of its patent through September of next year.  This particular drug has been hugely profitable for Teva, and produced about $4 billion in the year 2012 alone.  Teva, an Israeli company, has its U.S. operations centered in North Wales, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.

Because the Court has finished adding cases to its decision docket for the current Term, this new case will go over to the October or November argument sittings.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on patent appeals (UPDATED), SCOTUSblog (Mar. 31, 2014, 11:10 AM),