Modern law on expert testimony insists, as a condition of admissibility, that the asserted expertise be determined by the trial judge to be reliable. Reliability is usually characterized as a dichotomous attribute of evidence, as if expertise were either reliable or unreliable. This article argues that making progress in the development of meaningful and appropriate restrictions on the admissibility of expert testimony requires that we abandon this conceptualization and understand the implications of endorsing a gradational notion of reliability in which evidence can be more or less reliable and in which a comparative assessment of reliability is prominent. Consistent with Supreme Court precedent and available empirical evidence about jury decision-making, this article recommends that, in deciding whether to exclude expert testimony, the court's comparative reliability inquiry should focus on whether more reliable expertise is reasonably available to the proponent, rather than on the question of whether the jury will overvalue the expertise at the offered level of reliability. A rudimentary outline of how this would work is provided. The creation in 1982 of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit represents the first significant appellate consolidation of a particular area of law in American history. Evaluating the Federal Circuit experiment is highly important to understanding, and perhaps improving upon, the institutional design of the federal judiciary.

The Federal Circuit was grounded in a congressional desire for greater uniformity in the application of patent law. In patent law, as in other areas of the law, uniformity is a virtue. But uniformity is not the only virtue and centralization has its costs. The issue of centralization versus decentralization manifests itself in numerous areas of law, politics, economics and business. This article draws upon that literature and argues that the time is ripe to rethink the Federal Circuit experiment and the fixation on uniformity that gave rise to the experiment.

The criticisms currently levied against the Federal Circuit - that it maintains excessive insularity, is subject to path dependency in its case law, and produces inadequately nuanced jurisprudence - can be traced back ultimately to the court's chief structural limitation: The court lacks the benefit of sister-circuit jurisprudence that would engender a healthy competition of rationales and provide a mechanism for testing legal innovations. Accordingly, the article proposes that in addition to the Federal Circuit, at least one, and perhaps two or three, extant circuit courts should have jurisdiction to hear appeals relating to patent law.

This proposal represents a shift in strategy from one dominated by the pursuit of uniformity, to one where competition and diversity are equally important. As the literature from many other areas suggests, a choice between centralized and decentralized institutions cannot and should not be made with a polar solution. The issue is one of optimization. In 1982 Congress decided that the optimal number of federal appellate courts deciding patent cases was fewer than thirteen; we suggest that the optimal number may also be greater than one.


Copyright, Uniformity Principle

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Northwestern University Law Review

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Rethinking Patent Law’s Uniformity Principle


101 Northwestern University Law Review 1619 (2007)


COinS Craig Allen Nard Faculty Bio