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Texas' busiest patent judge shows no signs of slowing down

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(Reuters) - U.S. District Judge Alan Albright studied political science in college, perhaps an unexpected major for such a prominent figure in the patent world, which is dominated by lawyers with hard-science and engineering degrees.

But Albright, the sole permanent judge for the Waco division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, says his background gives him a different perspective than many in the field and allows him to relate better to juries, which has served him well during his career, both as a patent litigator and as a judge in one of America's busiest and most prominent patent courts.

For example, Albright said when he was practicing, he once convinced a jury to invalidate a patent based on a book in the "... for Dummies" series.

"It was something that any juror could pick up and read and say 'oh, I understand that,' and I persuaded the team that that was the prior art we ought to go with," Albright told Reuters in a recent interview.

Albright said he also "stepped into the shoes of an average juror" while preparing cases with other patent lawyers, having them explain to him how complex technology worked.

"If you could explain it to me, I felt you could explain it to just about anybody," Albright said, who added he has "great faith" in juries' ability to grasp the complexity of patent law.

After eight years as a patent litigator at Bracewell in Austin, Texas Albright was appointed to the bench by then-President Donald Trump in September 2018.

Patent owners have since flocked to Albright's court, based in part on the fast pace with which he handles patent disputes. According to a Lex Machina report, nearly 20% of all new patent cases in the U.S. were filed there last year.

Albright's focus on speed may not be surprising when you learn that the 61-year-old Texan has run 26 marathons – though he says a 27th is unlikely.

"I'm not sure I could finish a marathon right now where you wouldn't need a calendar to time me," Albright said.

Changes to his running habits aside, it doesn't look like Albright plans to slow down his docket anytime soon.

"At the end of the day, there's nothing special about a patent case on my docket," Albright said. "I treat every civil case the same way, I'm going to try and be as fair as possible on every aspect of it, and I'm going to do my very best to get it to trial as quickly as is reasonable for that case," which he said is usually around two years.

When asked how he keeps patent cases moving despite the court's high volume, Albright said he's been hiring additional staff, including a second magistrate judge with two additional law clerks "hopefully" as early as next January, a former clerk with an electrical engineering doctorate as a technical advisor, and around 20 summer interns.

He's also known for taking measures to streamline patent cases, including early and fast claim construction proceedings and handling discovery disputes with quick phone calls.

Albright said he didn't expect his court to become as popular as it has for patent litigation. He thought of it as a "potential safety valve" for busy, patent-heavy courts in Delaware and California, he said, but didn't "perceive that there would be a large, massive shift" to the Western District.

But he said he hasn't heard any complaints from fellow district court judges about his court's newfound prominence.

"Let me just say that no one has called and said, 'hey, can we come to Waco and help you handle some of those patent cases?'," Albright said.

Albright's practices have caused some controversy in the patent world. Among other things, he's known as being reluctant to move patent cases out of his court, and has been taken to task by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for his handling of some venue-related disputes.

Some law professors, publications, and others have also criticized his court for being overly friendly to patent owners, especially after presiding over a trial that resulted in an eye-popping $2.1 billion infringement verdict in March for non-practicing entity VLSI Technology LLC against Intel Corp.

"To me, those perceptions – whatever they are – are pretty much from outside the bubble," Albright said. "All I know is that I go to work every day, I work as hard as I can to be fair, I work as hard as I can to keep my docket moving."

Albright, a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio and the University of Texas School of Law, said he became "fascinated by every aspect" of patent cases as a magistrate judge in Austin from 1992 to 1999, where he began picking up patent disputes that other judges didn't want to hear as a way to get more time in the courtroom.

Following that stint on the bench, Albright practiced patent law at firms in Austin including Fish & Richardson and the firm then known as Gray Cary, as well as Bracewell.

Albright, who was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania and grew up in San Antonio, didn't know Waco well before joining the bench there and was concerned about being perceived as a "carpetbagger," but has tried to endear himself to the community by, among other things, hiring at least one clerk every year from Waco's Baylor Law School.

Waco has endeared itself to him, too.

"Everyone should get to be a federal judge in a small town at least one day in their life," Albright said. "There's just nothing better in the world."

And although Albright said he didn't always aim to be a judge, he still has a sense of awe about his role.

"If someone were to argue a motion today in my court and they cite to something I wrote a year ago, it still kind of slaps me that 'oh my gosh, I really am making law,'" Albright said. "It is fascinating and humbling to realize that I'm part of that now."

Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Reach him at blake.brittain@thomsonreuters.com

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