Tuesday, December 28, 2004

THE NEXT ROCKET DOCKET: MARSHALL, TEXAS? (National Law Journal) When the Eastern District of Virginia, which once had the reputation as an IP "rocket docket," became overwhelmed with patent lawsuits several years ago, the judges advised lawyers to go somewhere else.

That "somewhere else" turned out to be the U.S. district court in a place called Marshall, Texas, about 100 miles east of Dallas.

But now Marshall may be approaching the Virginia district's experience. In the last several years, patent lawyers have flocked to Marshall, a small northeastern Texas town of 25,000, because of its speedy court process, patent-enthusiastic judges and juries considered ideal for hearing intellectual property cases. This year alone, the court has seen 59 patent cases, more than triple the total in 2003, which saw just 14 patent suits.

So what's the big legal attraction in a town whose claim to fame is an annual fire ant festival?

The judges, lawyers say. Specifically, District Judge T. John Ward, who joined the bench in 1999 and helped create what is known in legal circles as a rocket docket for patent cases. He did this by adopting rules that encourage the setting of quick trial dates and firm discovery deadlines. And where there have been discovery disputes, he has made himself available.

But more than all that, lawyers say, what may perhaps be Ward's strongest trait is that he actually likes patent cases.

"That to me is the big deal. You could have a rocket docket in Minnesota or New Jersey, but if the judges don't like patent cases, it doesn't make sense. These [Marshall] judges say they like them and they act like they like them," said attorney Daniel F. Perez of Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Dallas.

"They don't put up with any discovery disputes or any shenanigans," said Charles Baker, an intellectual property litigator with Porter & Hedges in Houston. "Some federal judges make it very well known that they don't like to hear these cases."

Baker noted that some defense attorneys are afraid to try cases there because of its pro-plaintiff reputation, which he disagrees with. He said that the rocket docket also turns off some defense lawyers who feel pressured to produce evidence quickly, leaving little time for preparation.

"People have portrayed [Marshall] as a fear factor: 'Oh, this is a terrible thing. These people are abusing the judicial system. It's unfair.' Well, I don't agree with that," Baker said. "The only advantage [for plaintiffs' lawyers] I see is that they can get them to trial quicker. But as a defense attorney, there are ways you can deal with that if you're a competent lawyer."

Baker said that Marshall's large elderly population also provides a good jury pool for intellectual property cases.

"There are a lot of old people who don't have a problem with sitting weeks at a time and listening to complicated issues," Baker said. "But in Houston, you have people who are fighting to get out of a trial."

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