Supreme Court hears business method patent, Eighth Amendment cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Monday in three cases. In Graham v. Florida [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments questioning whether the Eighth Amendment [text] ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits imprisoning a juvenile for life without parole for a non-homicide violation. Counsel for the petitioner argued that such a sentence is "particularly cruel to adolescents because...it gives up on [them] and determines that [they are] forever unfit to live in civil society." Counsel for the government argued that a "categorical rule" regarding sentencing for minors would undermine Florida's and other states' adopted juvenile justice systems, going against a national consensus and trend.

In the similar case of Sullivan v. Florida [oral arguments transcript, PDF], the Court heard arguments about whether imposing a life sentence without parole on a 13-year-old for a non-homicide violation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. During the arguments, the Court focused on a two-year statute of limitations on seeking post-conviction relief, which would have run out in 1993. Counsel for petitioner Sullivan argued that after the Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons [opinion text], which held that the death penalty is unconstitutional as it applies to crimes committed by minors, certain death row prisoners would get a better sentence than petitioner. Relying on the Court's reasoning in Roper, Sullivan's counsel argued that the petitioner's case is entitled to review.

In Bilski v. Kappos [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments on the scope of patentable subject matter in regards to a challenged business method patent [Jones Day backgrounder]. The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, narrowly defined [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] the "machine or transformation" test for processes, requiring that a process be tied to a particular machine or cause a transformation of physical matter. During arguments, the Court approached the issue of classifying business methods and other processes as patentable subject matter broadly and with skepticism. Counsel for petitioner argued that the Court's decision in Diamond v. Diehr [opinion text], which held that a physical process controlled by a computer was patentable, contains language about non-patentable subject matter that confirms the patentability of business methods. Justice Stevens was interested in the opinion of the late Judge Rich on the matter, to which petitioner's counsel responded by pointing out that the esteemed patent jurist wrote for the Federal Circuit in State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc. [opinion text], approving the patent eligibility of a data processing system for implementing a hub and spoke investment system. One of the problems with the current transformation test, counsel argued, is that "it would exclude some valuable inventions that I think everyone would agree are technological under any test." Counsel referred to important patents from the past, such as Samuel Morse's patent [materials] for using his encoded alphabet in connection with telegraphy, that might not survive the Federal Circuit's current test. Counsel for respondent asked for narrow relief as opposed to a broad ruling on process patents generally.

 

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