By Jason Rantanen
It’s time for the January 2023 Federal Circuit statistics update! As I’ve done for the last few years, below I provide some statistics on what the Federal Circuit has been doing over the past year. These charts draw on the Federal Circuit Dataset Project, an open-access dataset that I maintain that contains information on all Federal Circuit decisions and docketed appeals. While previous versions of the dataset have been limited to merits decisions, this year we began including non-merits terminations as well. Currently, all non-merits terminations from 2022 are included in the dataset. We’ll be working backwards to add terminations from earlier years.
One of my goals with this dataset is to make it publicly accessible so that anyone can use it in their own research. A complete copy of this year’s release is archived at https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/CAFC_Dataset_Project. In addition, you can access the dataset through a user interface via https://empirical.law.uiowa.edu and generate your own subsets and graphs. A copy of the codebook is available at these locations as well. In addition, if you are a researcher who would like help using the dataset, please reach out to me – I’m happy to help out.
Onto the data!
Decision Numbers and Origins
Figure 1 shows the number of Federal Circuit opinions and Rule 36 summary affirmances by origin since 2010. These represent individual documents (i.e.: a single opinion or Rule 36) rather than docket numbers (which is how the Federal Circuit reports its metrics).
Once again, the highest number of merits decisions arose from the PTO. Overall, however, there was a substantial drop in the number of merits decisions: 532 in 2022, as compared with 643 in 2021. Decisions from all origins actually dropped slightly, but the biggest drop was in the number of decisions arising from the PTO was the main reason: 147 in 2022 as compared with 216 in 2021. The direct cause of fewer decisions isn’t a mystery: as shown below, there was a big drop in appeals docketed at the Federal Circuit in 2021. Fewer appeals means fewer appellate decisions.
Opinions vs. Summary Affirmances
Figure 2 shows the number of opinions versus Rule 36 summary affirmances arising from the District Courts and PTO. In terms of absolute numbers, the court issued the fewest Rule 36 summary affirmances in appeals arising from these origins in several years. In relative terms, 21% of the decisions arising from the district courts were disposed of through a summary affirmance while 42% of the Federal Circuit’s decisions arising from the PTO were summary affirmances.
What about the type of opinion that the court is issuing? For precedential opinions, Figure 3 shows that this is one area in which things are about the same as last year: the court issued slightly more precedential decisions arising from the district courts than in 2021 (52 vs. 47), and slightly fewer precedential decisions arising from the district courts (29 vs. 33). Rather, the drop in decisions arising from the PTO mostly manifested in terms of fewer nonprecedential opinions.
What about compared to the court’s overall decisions? The number of precedential opinions issued by the court in 2022 was almost exactly the same as in 2021: 162 in 2022 as compared with 164 in 2021. But it is a drop from 2014-2020. (Note that this figure does not include Rule 36 summary affirmances).
In contrast with 2021, at which the Federal Circuit affirmed district court decisions relatively frequently (79%), in 2022 the court affirmed-in-full in appeals from the district courts just 57% of the time. Even including partial affirmances, the rate was lower than in recent years: it affirmed in full or part just 75% of the time. (The purple line indicates the average 68% affirmance rate over the 12-year time period). As a reminder, these graphs do not include petitions for writs of mandamus. In contrast, the court continued to affirm the PTO’s decisions at about the same rate as it has in recent years, affirming in full in 78% of its decisions.
Figure 6 shows the number of docketed appeals by origin. These are are appeals filed at the Federal Circuit — the precursor to any decisions. As Figure 6 shows, there was a substantial drop-off in appeals filed in 2021, followed by an increase in appeals filed in 2022, especially in appeals from the district courts (339 appeals filled in 2022 as compared with 286 appeals in 2021) and from the PTO (489 appeals filed in 2022 as compared with 402 appeals filed in 2021). Given what happened in appeals this year, I’d expect an increase in Federal Circuit decisions in 2023, recognizing that it takes about 13 months on average from filing to decision.
In addition to providing a picture of what’s being filed at the Federal Circuit, the docket dataset also allows us to match up the Federal Circuit decisions to other datasets of district court and PTO data, such as the USPTO Patent Litigation dataset and the Stanford NPE Litigation Dataset. If you’re interested in doing a deep dive into these areas, my research team and I used this data in a few papers this year:
- Jason Rantanen, Missing Decisions and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, 170 U. Pa L. Rev. Online (2022)
- Jason Rantanen, Charles Neff, Eweosa Owenaze & Allison Wiliamson, Who Appeals (and Wins) Patent Infringement Cases, 60 Houston L. Rev. 289 (2022) and
- Jason Rantanen, “Studying Patent Infringement Litigation,” Research Handbook on Empirical studies in Intellectual Property Law, Estelle Derclaye, ed. (Edward Elgar forthcoming) (preprint available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4194142).
One category of data that is not included in the above graphs is the data on petitions for writs of mandamus and petitions for permission to appeal. As in past years, nearly all of the miscellaneous matters consisted of Petitions for Writs of Mandamus, with a few Petitions for Permission to Appeal. Figure 7 shows the numbers of dispositions of petitions for writs of mandamus over time.
In 2022, the court granted in whole or part 11 petitions for a writ of mandamus; fewer than 2021 (18), but at just as high a rate (42%). As in past years, the grants arise exclusively from petitions arising from the district courts. Jonas Anderson, Paul Gugliuzza & I talk about this in more depth in Extraordinary Writ or Ordinary Remedy: Mandamus at the Federal Circuit, 100 Wash. U. L. Rev. 327 (2022)
Beginning in February 2022, the Federal Circuit began making all terminations of appeals available on its website. This is a terrific decision and is responsive to concerns about “missing” decisions that Merritt McAlister and I have each written about. That said, as I wrote about in my examination of the Federal Circuit’s decisions, the Federal Circuit has historically done a pretty good job most making merits decisions (i.e.: “Opinions” and “Rule 36” summary affirmances) available on its website, so many of these additional terminations consist of appeals that are dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 42(b). I supplemented what was on the court’s website with a collection of the additional January and February 2022 terminations from PACER, so all of the terminations for 2022 are in there.
Using data about these decisions, I was able to put together a graph showing how these appeals were disposed of. This graph differs a bit from the Federal Circuit’s own statistics because it’s by document rather than docket number, and (2) it is for the calendar year rather than the fiscal year. The purpose is to provide a sense of what happens to appeals other than those that result in merits decisions.
Close to 2/3rds of appeal terminations occurred in the context of an opinion (49%) or Rule 36 summary affirmance (14%). Most of the remainder were dismissals (32%). Of the dismissals, 63% were voluntary withdrawals (generally under to FRAP 42(b)). The remaining dismissals are for a variety of reasons, but typically due to a failure to prosecute the appeal, failure to appeal within the relevant time period, or lack of appellate subject matter jurisdiction.
To download the data for yourself, visit the dataverse or go to http://empirical.law.uiowa.edu. I’ve also saved a copy of my Excel workbook with the graphs on the Dataverse archive. It contains the specific parameters that I used to generate these graphs.