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Boston University School of Law




Over the past two decades, a few dozen lawyers have come to dominate practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. By many accounts, these elite lawyers—whose clients are often among the largest corporations in the world—have spurred the Court to hear more cases that businesses care about and to decide those cases in favor of their clients. The Supreme Court’s recent case law on antitrust, arbitration, punitive damages, class actions, and more provides copious examples.

Though it is often overlooked in discussions of the emergent Supreme Court bar, patent law is another area in which the Court’s agenda has changed significantly in the past twenty years. After rarely hearing patent cases for several decades, the Court now decides three or more patent cases nearly every Term. This article presents an empirical analysis linking the Supreme Court’s increasing interest in patent law to the elite bar’s growing involvement in patent litigation. Though correlation does not prove causation, the article relies on a novel dataset of cert. petitions in Federal Circuit patent cases to suggest that the elite bar has, in fact, contributed to the growth of the Supreme Court’s patent docket. Among the article’s key findings is that, in patent cases, a cert. petition filed by an elite lawyer is three times more likely to be granted than a petition filed by a lawyer outside that group. And although elite lawyers account for only 16% of cert. petitions filed in patent cases, their petitions account for a remarkable 40% of the petitions granted.

Because patent appeals are centralized in the Federal Circuit, patent law lacks the circuit splits that the law clerks who sift through cert. petitions would normally look for in recommending that the Court grant review. But the presence of elite lawyers may not be an ideal proxy for cert.-worthiness. In fact, the increasing participation of those lawyers in patent litigation could help explain why the Court’s recent patent cases, though substantial in number, mainly involve issues of jurisdiction, procedure, and statutory interpretation—not the core areas of patent law where the Court’s input would be most useful.


Forthcoming publication in the Notre Dame Law Review

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