By Andrew Dhuey
"I'm following your case at the Federal Circuit – would you please send me a PDF of the parties' briefs? Thanks in advance." Patent litigators and prosecutors throughout the nation have been sending emails with this request for years, relying on the kindness of strangers for a professional courtesy. They do this because there is usually no easy way for them to obtain Federal Circuit briefs. The reason for that is the Court – charged by Congress to resolve the most important technology disputes in the world – still does not have electronic case filing (ECF).
In the federal judiciary, ECF is now operational in all appellate and district courts, save two: the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit. Some Supreme Court justices are comically unfamiliar with such cutting-edge technologies as texting and email, though the Chief Justice probably does know more about pagers than the typical 20-something today. Fortunately, the technological backwardness of the Supreme Court's case filing system is of no consequence – you can get just about any petition or merits stage brief you might want from SCOTUSblog, the American Bar Association and other online sources.
At the Federal Circuit, however, odds are you have only three options when seeking a brief or motion: i) pay several hundred dollars for a messenger to go to the Court and copy it, ii) pay Westlaw or Lexis a similar amount to download it (if available) or iii) ask an attorney in the case for the favor of a PDF (tip: ask really nicely).
The Court's long delay in implementing ECF is puzzling. In case after case, Federal Circuit judges and their law clerks demonstrate their ability to learn and analyze extremely complex technologies in widely disparate fields. Why then is the Court lagging behind every regional circuit court and all district courts in the nation when it comes to adopting technology in its own operations?
ECF is not a newcomer to the federal courts. District courts started using ECF in 2002; circuit courts in 2005. On June 28, 2007, then Chief Judge Michel announced that the Court hoped to utilize ECF in fall 2007. Since then, nothing. Well, slightly more than nothing. This message appears on Federal Circuit electronic docket sheets: "The following documents, filed after 8/13/07, are available for download: official caption, entry of appearance, certificate of interest. No other case documents are available electronically." I can scarcely imagine any documents of less interest to others than captions, entries of appearances and certificates of interest, yet these are the ones you can obtain electronically.
The Federal Circuit's lack of ECF is not merely a hassle for lawyers in search of briefs and motions. Scores of non-lawyers, including inventors, veterans, federal employees and vaccine-case claimants, represent themselves in Federal Circuit appeals. That rather challenging task would be less daunting if they had easy access to well-written appellate briefs of experienced counsel.
Federal Circuit judges, please consider this an amicus filing from someone who has great respect for you and the Court – it is time to roll out ECF.