Mixing law and technology can be complex, especially for district courts trying to follow the precedent of appellate courts that lacked a steady diet of patent cases. This complexity led to a lack of uniformity in patent law. The lack of uniformity and concomitant lack of predictability led to many calls for specialized courts of one form or another. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was established by the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982, in part, to provide for the “‘special need for nationwide uniformity’ in certain areas of the law.” The Federal Circuit is an Article III court under the U.S. Constitution and is a “co-equal member” of the system of 13 U.S. courts of appeals. The Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction over a number of specialized legal areas, including patent appeals from district courts.
A familiarity with the case law and procedural law in all jurisdictional areas of the court is necessary to formulate the strongest positions during appeal. Because the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hears virtually all patent appeals, and because the Supreme Court reviews only a small number of patent cases each year, the Federal Circuit is more often than not the highest court that will hear a patent appeal. It is worth noting, however, that the Supreme Court issued five significant patent opinions in 2014, and three in 2015.
The Federal Circuit, which has authorized 12 active judges, also has six senior judges who hear and resolve cases. Appeals are randomly assigned to panels to provide each judge “with a representative cross-section of the fields of law within the jurisdiction of the court.” Cases are generally heard by a panel of three judges; however, any odd number of at least three judges may form the panel.
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