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Supreme Court hears arguments on biological patents, title to riverbeds

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Wednesday in two cases. In Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court heard arguments on the ability to patent under 35 USC § 101 [text] the body's biological reaction to different dosages of a certain type of drug. Prometheus Labs [corporate website] patented the tests doctors use for determining the appropriate dosage of drugs for treating Crohn's disease and other autoimmune diseases. Mayo Collaborative has argued that the tests look at "natural phenomenon" and that doctors violate the patents simply by mentally recognizing the correlation, regardless of what the doctors do with this knowledge. During the oral argument, petitioner Mayo Collaborative argued that the patent attempts to protect a "law of nature" instead of the "application of a law of nature," which restricts doctors' ability to make treatment judgments based on patients' reactions to drugs. Respondent Prometheus Labs argued that the courts have permitted similar patents in the past, that the current patent involves only a narrow range of drugs and that it will not prevent future improvements in the field.

In PPL Montana v. Montana [transcript, PDF], the court heard arguments on whether the proper constitutional test for determining river navigability for title purposes requires a trial court to consider whether the river was considered navigable at the time the state joined the Union or whether the court can consider new evidence based on current use. PPL Montana (PPL) [corporate website], which owns a hydroelectric power dam on the Missouri River, brought the challenge after the Supreme Court of Montana held [opinion, PDF] that the title to the riverbeds passed to Montana when it became a state in 1889 and that the riverbeds are public trust lands under Article X, Section 11 [text] under the Montana Constitution. The Supreme Court of Montana ordered PPL to pay $41 million in back rent and more in future rent for use of the riverbeds. Petitioner PPL argued that the Montana Supreme Court "deviat[ed] from well-settled principles of Federal navigability law" by failing to focus on specific river segments and considering modern instead of historical use of the river. Respondent the state of Montana replied that, under federal precedent, the state owns title to the riverbeds of navigable rivers and that the Montana Supreme Court properly applied the test for navigability in determining that the "river served as a continuous highway of commerce" at the time of statehood.

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