The U.S. Supreme Court has released its decision in Gunn v. Minton, No. 11-1118 (opinion docket), reversing the decision from the Texas Supreme Court.

This is a legal malpractice suit about a patent issue. The defendant argued that the presence of an issue over which federal courts had special jurisdiction (patent law) meant that Texas state courts lacked the power to render a complete decision. The Texas Supreme Court agreed, concluding that the appeal raised an issue of federal law over which Texas courts had no authority and thus should defer to federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case for review and heard arguments in January.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote today for a unanimous Court, holding that federal law did not in these circumstances require the Texas legal-malpractice claim to have been brought in federal court. The Court thus reversed the Texas Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Vernon F. Minton v. Jerry W. Gunn, Individually, Williams Squire & Wren..., No. 10-0141 and remanded to the Texas state courts for further proceedings.

The nub of the reasoning begins at page 8 of the slip opinion, which frames the relevant test as whether the particular issue of federal law involved here was substantial to the federal system (not to the parties):

Minton’s argument founders on [Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering]’s next requirement, however, for the federal issue in this case is not substantial in the relevant sense. In reaching the opposite conclusion, the Supreme Court of Texas focused on the importance of the issue to the plaintiff’s case and to the parties before it. … As our past cases show, however, it is not enough that the federal issue be significant to the particular parties in the immediate suit; that will always be true when the state claim “necessarily raise[s]” a disputed federal issue, as Grable separately requires. The substantiality inquiry under Grable looks instead to the importance of the issue to the federal system as a whole.

Having thus reframed the dispute between these parties into a vastly bigger context — the federal system, and federal-state relations — the Court concluded that there was no bar to the Texas courts adjudicating this claim.

This may be, in part, because it was an unusually retrospective kind of claim — legal malpractice — which involves determining hypothetical questions in the past tense about what might have happened in litigation. Any holdings that state courts might reach in such a narrowly defined context are unlikely to disturb the uniformity of federal patent law. See slip op. 9-10.

The Court also rejected the argument that the unique expertise of the Federal Circuit was a reason for the federal courts to be the exclusive forum for patent-malpractice cases. See Slip op. 11-12. The Court’s reasoning here again echoed the opinion’s theme: “[T]he possibility that a state court will incorrectly resolve a state claim [malpractice] is not, by itself, enough to trigger the federal courts’ exclusive patent jurisdiction …. [R]esolution of a patent issue in the context of a state legal malpractice action can be vitally important to the particular parties in that case. But something more, demonstrating that the question is significant to the federal system as a whole, is needed.” (( In that regard, this case is really about which funnel patent cases must follow toward uniformity. The patent issues present in some state claims may no longer have a direct path to the federal circuit. But an interesting enough substantive question about patent law could nonetheless make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court by means of certiorari to the state courts (just as in this case). ))

The immediate effect of Gunn v. Minton is of course to clarify that state courts can resolve legal-malpractice issues that touch upon federal patent law.

More interesting to appellate lawyers, perhaps, is how the Court shifted the focus of a jurisdictional inquiry from analysis of the parties’ claims to a broader question that, to my eyes, reads more like a discussion of discretionary review. The focus in the Chief Justice’s opinion is on whether the issue is important to federal jurisprudence, something that echoes how the Supreme Court resolves cert petitions. Indeed, the opinion employs some argumentative devices that one might find in a solid Brief in Opposition arguing against the Court taking certiorari of a state-law patent issue:

  • the evergreen argument that “If the question arises frequently, it will soon be [presented in a better case, in federal court]”, slip op. 10;

  • explaining how rarely state court decisions about federal issues are viewed as authority in federal court or by federal agencies, slip op. 11; and

  • explaining that, even if there were some issue preclusion from a mistake made by a state court about a patent-law issue, that effect would be limited to the parties and thus not important to the jurisprudence, slip op. 11-12.

I do not envy the state court having to guess which claims might, at the margin, meet that test.

But although the edges of this jurisprudential test are perhaps less crisply defined than before, the Supreme Court’s framing results in such a smaller zone of preemption that, for most cases involving routine disputes, it will not matter precisely where the line falls.