Justice Breyer's Freaky Patent Opinion

I mentioned earlier that the Supreme Court seems to be going a little nuts with Patent Law these days, taking on an unprecedented (hurr!) number of Patent cases. The latest development comes in the case of Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings v. Metabolite Laboratories, Inc. Here's what went down:

The Court granted cert in a somewhat peculiar area of Patent Law -- the idea that naturally-occurring phenomena are not patentable. The canonical illustrations of this principle are that Einstein couldn't have patented E=mc2, and Newton couldn't have patented gravity (though Glen Seaborg successfully patented the elements americurium and curium, which is pretty cool). Laboratory Corp. dealt with a correlation between a certain substance in the blood and certain types of vitamin deficiencies. The Court granted cert on the issue of whether the patent on testing for and observing the substance level and then determining the presence of a vitamin deficiency was patentable. After a great deal of briefing on the issue, including input from the Solicitor General, the Court dismissed the writ of certiorari as "improvidently granted." The vote was 5-3, with Roberts not participating. The Court essentially agreed to consider the issue and then gave us a big "Just kidding."

Stranger still, Justice Breyer wrote a 15-page dissent to the dismissal of cert that was joined by Justices Stevens and Souter. The structure of the dissent is basically, (1) We should answer the question and here's why, (2) Here's the answer, and (3) The answer makes answering the question even more important. Among the reasons that Breyer gives for why the Court should answer the question is simple politeness: "We said that we would do so."

Breyer's discussion of the merits of the case is an interesting read if you're into that kind of thing. But the whole episode just strikes me as very strange.

EDIT: This is probably the first time I've used variations on the word "freak" in two consecutive blog posts.

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This page contains a single entry by hb published on June 23, 2006 9:55 AM.

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