On precedent in competition cases, and on the US Supreme Court
As I wrote almost 4 years ago (On the EU and the sovereign debt crisis- Because life isn’t just competition law), discussing about EU competition law considering everything that’s going on these days feels a bit weird; it’s as if in the midst of the Titanic’s sinking we –competition lawyers- were only discussing about the colors of the paper wall of one of its most luxurious ball rooms…
Some years ago, as part of PhD courses, I wrote a pretty lengthy research paper on the value of precedent in EU Law for Professor Gil Carlos Rodríguez Iglesias, the former President of the ECJ. The topic was most interesting. For some time I entertained the idea of turning it into a proper article on the subject and then doing a spin-off for competition cases alone. I now acknowledge I most likely won’t have the time to do that (although I encourage any of you looking for thesis topics to give it a try), but the interest remains.
This is to explain why something the US Supreme Court said in its recent Opinion in a patent case, Kimble v Marvel, caught my attention (the case, concerning a licensed Spiderman product that lets children “and young-at-heart adults” to shoot “webs” from a device held in the palm of the hand; [sounds pretty cool, no?]) reaffirms a precedent –Brulotte– pursuant to which a patentee cannot collect royalties on sales made after expiration of the patent). Actually, many of the things I read there caught my attention, and for different reasons:
As serious antitrust experts, you would mainly be interested in the SCOTUS’ acknowledgment that stare decisis is nuanced in antitrust cases (no news, but it’s always interesting to read it so explicitly). The Opinion -written by Justice Kagan- contains a very interesting discussion about the value of stare decisis (“stand by things decided”) even when it may lead to “sticking to some wrong decisions”. Remarkably, at one point it says the following:
“If Brulotte were an antitrust rather than a patent case, we might [address the issues] as Kimble would like. This Court has viewed stare decisis as having less-than-usual force in cases involving the Sherman Act. See, e.g., Khan, 522 U. S., at 20–21. Congress, we have explained, intended that law’s reference to “restraint of trade” to have “changing content,” and authorized courts to oversee the term’s “dynamic potential.” Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U. S. 717, 731–732 (1988). We have therefore felt relatively free to revise our legal analysis as economic understanding evolves and (just as Kimble notes) to reverse antitrust precedents that misperceived a practice’s competitive consequences. See Leegin, 551 U. S., at 899–900. Moreover, because the question in those cases was whether the challenged activity restrained trade, the Court’s rulings necessarily turned on its understanding of economics. See Business Electronics Corp., 485 U. S., at 731. Accordingly, to overturn the decisions in light of sounder economic reasoning was to take them “on [their] own terms.” Halliburton, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9)”.
This paragraph confirms, once again, that antitrust is an odd legal animal and that general legal principles often apply to it with a twist. It also confirms that antitrust is a discipline in permanent evolution, which is why many of us enjoy it (and even write blogs about it).
But perhaps more importantly, the reflection that this paragraph triggers is that the “changing content” of antitrust as opposed to other disciplines means that it is a product of common sense distilled from decades of experience on individual cases and of established economic thinking rather than a product of political preferences embodied in a statute. Changes in competition law are (most often) dictated by logic applied by technical bodies and judges, not by political agendas. I made already many of those points here.
It is important not to forget this at a time when some, at least in the EU, are talking about changing/adapting the content of the competition rules (i.e. to replace those decades of distilled thinking by a more hands-on approach on the part of legislators, which would imply the adoption of rules guided by the political concerns of the day and not by the evolution of technical knowledge).
As not-so-serious readers of this blog, you’ll probably also be interested by the language used both in the Opinion and in the dissents. Justice Kagan describes the product at issue as “a toy that allows children (and young-at-heart adults) to role-play as “a spider person”, when describing IP protection explains that “Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time”, and after referring to a “web of precedents” reasons that “as against this superpowered form of stare decisis, we would need a superspecial justification to warrant reversing Brulotte.” In sum, the Opinion concludes that “what we can decide, we can undecide. But stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly. Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider Man”, p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”)”. And these are only some examples (our great intern, Pablo, found many others J)
P.S. And speaking of the US Supreme Court, this past week it featured in the news for reasons other than antitrust and superpowers. As you know, in an Opinion authored by Justice Kennedy (of which many have highlighted the last paragraph), the SCOTUS declared bans on gay marriage unconstitutional. This Opinion and the dissents (particularly the controversial ones by Scalia and Thomas) have once again revealed how fascinating those characters are (admittedly, in Europe we have recently learnt that it is not only there that Courts fight internally…).If you have a few minutes, I would very much recommend reading this on Scalia’s dissent, this on Thomas dissent, and, above all, Richard Posner’s brilliant take on the whole thing. [By the way, if you’re interested in knowing what insult Scalia would have for you, click here] I was fortunate enough to take US Constitutional Law with Michael Klarman (who that year won the prize for the best rated professor at Harvard Law School) and possibly the best thing about the lectures were the myriad anecdotes he told about the Justices. Anyone interested in these should read this extraordinary book. Anecdotes aside, and whereas there are a bunch things I don’t like about the Supreme Court, there are a couple that I wouldn’t mind importing to the EU; one is the drafting style and the other is the fact that submissions, transcripts and recordings of hearings are publicly available (