First Constitutional Interpretation on IP Matter: Current Law on Recusal of Technical Examination Officers Ruled Constitutional

Taiwan Supreme Court Grand Justices ruled for the first time on a constitutional issue involving intellectual property. The Grand Justices’ interpretation was issued in February as Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 761 (hereinafter referred to as “Interpretation”). In the Interpretation, the Grand Justices declared that the existing law governing the recusal of Technical Examination Officers (“TEO”) is constitutional.

Facts and Background

The position of TEO was created in 2008 pursuant to the legislation of the IP Case Adjudication Act (“Act”) as a part of the legislation which established the “Taiwan Intellectual Property Court (“IP Court”)1. A TEO is a senior patent examiner from the Intellectual Property Office (“TIPO”) who is commissioned to work at the IP Court. The TEO is responsible for the investigation of technology relevant to a given case, the collection of information, analysis and the providing of advisory opinions on technical issues under the direction of the presiding judges. When necessary, the TEO may ask questions or explain to either party during a court hearing, state opinions to the judge, ask questions directly to a witness or an expert witness, assist in investigation during evidence perseverance, and assist in enforcement proceeding based on professional knowledge of a given case.

TEO’s recusal is statutorily written in Article 5 of the Act. Article 5 entails that according to the nature of the pending action, the recusal challenge of a TEO shall be governed mutatis mutandis by the rules of recusal challenge of a judge provided in the Code of Civil Procedure, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Code of Administrative Litigation Procedure, as the case may be. Furthermore, Article 34(2) of the Act provides that a judge who had presided over a civil or criminal action regarding Intellectual Property may sit in an Intellectual Property administrative trial relevant to the case over which said judge had presided. The Act excludes the application of the law for judge’s recusal as stipulated in the Code of Administrative Litigation Proceedings, where the same judge must excuse him or herself from an administrative trial if he or she was ever involved in the relevant civil or criminal trial. However, the Act does not stipulate whether or not Article 34(2) applies to a TEO as well.

The petitioner for the Interpretation is ATEN International (“Petitioner”), an electronic solution service provider. The Petitioner in the second instance of a patent infringement civil suit had felt the TEO opinion regarding validity of the patent at issue to be disadvantageous. Subsequently, the same patent in dispute was subject to an invalidation action raised by a third party and the TIPO declared the patent invalid as a result. Unsatisfied with TIPO’s decision, the Petitioner resorted to administrative litigation. The IP court in that administrative litigation assigned the very same TEO who had involved in the previous civil case for the same patent in dispute to assist in the adjudication of the Petitioner’s case. Anticipating another unfavorable advisory opinion, the Petitioner challenged the appointment of the TEO and filed a motion for TEO recusal. The Petitioner’s motion was denied, whereupon the Petitioner appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court.

The Supreme Administrative Court opined that the TEO’s technical analysis and opinions do not have binding effect on a judge who tries the case based on legal certainty. Secondly, Article 34(2) of the Act is an exception to the Code of Administrative Legal Proceedings, insofar as it provides that a judge who had presided over a civil or criminal action regarding Intellectual Property may participate in an Intellectual Property administrative trial relevant to a previous trial over which said judge presided. Since the exception applies to the judge who exercises judicial powers according to the law, the same should apply to a TEO assisting the judge and therefore there is no need for TEO recusal in the case at issue. The denial of the motion was upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court

After exhaustion of all appealable remedies, the Petitioner petitioned for Interpretation of the Constitution, claiming both Articles 5 and 34 (2) of the Act are unconstitutional as they infringe upon the right of the people to a fair trial and violate the principle of legal reservation as well as the principle of clarity and definiteness of law. The Petitioner also filed a motion for preliminary injunction to suspend the administrative litigation proceeding associated with the TEO recusal.

The Grand Justices’ Interpretation

The Grand Justices declared that both Articles 5 and 34 (2) of the Act to be constitutional.

Rationale Behind the Interpretation The majority opinion of the Grand Justices began with an emphasis on the judicial purpose of judge recusal. As one of the core embodiments of the constitutional right to litigate2, the people shall be entitled to a fair trial, and this includes preventing a judge’s predetermined bias owing to participation in different levels or the prior proceeding of the same case, so as to safeguard the realization of hierarchical remedy of law. The same limitation shall also apply to the TEOs, because a TEO’s advice and knowledge may also affect the result of the trial. This is because the TEO’s opinion may serve as the factual basis of a judgement.

Considering Article 5 of the Act, the Codes of Civil, Criminal, or Administrative procedure pertaining to a judge’s recusal is quasi-applicable to deal with any party lodging a challenge against a TEO. As such, the recusal of the TEO is statutorily and clearly provided and is in compliance with the Principle of Reservation in law making. The Petitioner in this case claimed that Article 5 lacks specificity, and as a result the judge who previously attended the decision in designation of the TEO also participated in the adjudication for motion to challenge the same TEO. As such, Article 5 of the Act violates the principle of legal reservation as well as the principle of clarity and definiteness of law. The majority opinion clarified that the matter about which the Petitioner complained is a matter of the “judge” recusal, while Article 5 deals with only “TEO” recusal. Since the matter about which the Petitioner complained is not any of the causes itemized in the Code of Administrative Litigation Procedure for the recusal of a judge, the judge was not compelled to excuse himself.

Moreover, Article 34(2) provides that a judge who had presided over a civil or criminal action regarding Intellectual Property may participate in a relevant Intellectual Property administrative trial. While the judge recusal mechanism was instituted so as to maintain judicial impartiality by avoiding pre-determined bias or conflict of a judge’s personal interest, intellectual property cases nevertheless by and large involve escalated technicality and professionality. It is therefore a legislative policy to minimize split court opinions and further to uphold consistency of the same in order to improve the reliability of the court decisions. Besides, Taiwan’s courts are constituted in a bipartite regime, in which there are general (civil and criminal) and administrative courts. While there are itemized causes for a judge to excuse him or herself according to the Code of Administrative Procedure, these causes applied to cases of different trial court which does not affect the public interest and subsequent remedy for the same case in different level of a court. As a result, based on the legislative authority’s special concern, Article 34(2) of the Act does not violate the constitutional right to a fair trial. As for the TEO, who is by definition an advisor for technical facts which aid judges, the majority opinion held that a TEO would not need to recuse given that a judge is not compelled to do so either.

Finally, the Court in their interpretation denied the additional request for preliminary injunction because the request was moot as the Interpretation was already rendered and because the Petitioner was eventually awarded a favorable decision from which the Petition for Interpretation was based.

Dissenting Opinion and Social Criticism

In the decision there was a dissenting opinion which disagreed conspicuously with the majority’s identification of question in Article 5. One of the dissenting Justices interpreted the question as whether the law is silent on the question of whether a judge shall recuse from adjudicating TEO’s recusal if he or she had previously designated the same TEO is constitutional. The dissenting Justice regretted that the majority failed to give a straight response to this constitutional question.

Furthermore, the Interpretation also invited some criticism due to its denial of the Petitioner’s request for a preliminary injunction.3 Preliminary remedy as part of judicial relief is stressed on its aspects of timeliness. In issuing something like a preliminary restraining order, the Justices should inform the petitioner in a timely manner before a pending issue of merit is resolved. Otherwise, the protection of the petitioner’s immediate interest by a temporary relief will not be properly addressed in time. In Taiwan’s constitutional history, there have only been 11 Interpretations which have dealt with requests for preliminary injunctions and of these, only one was successfully granted. With respect to almost all the others (nine specifically), denials were based on the same cause – the immediate interest of protection was moot. Those lodging criticisms aimed at the ruling wonder how such statistics and answers to the public’s demand for timely protection would meet the constitutional requirement for a due process of law.