Judge T. John Ward readily admits he isn't the world's leading authority on intellectual property law.
But because of a strange confluence of circumstances, his tiny one-storey federal courthouse in the sleepy Texas town of Marshall (population 25,000) has emerged as an unlikely international venue for patent infringement lawsuits. "I don't hold myself up as an expert in patent law," he readily acknowledged in an interview Thursday.
Marshall, Tex., a dot on the map three-hours east of Dallas, hasn't been a hub for anything since the Civil War, when it was a key cotton-shipping railway stop. Now it's a battleground again as BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., faces a distracting lawsuit from a Silicon Valley rival, Visto Corp.
In a practice derided by critics as "venue shopping," dozens of big-name technology companies from the United States, Canada and even Asia are suing each other with reckless abandon in Judge Ward's court - the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
Nearly 150 cases have been filed there in the past three years and the pace is accelerating. In the first four months of this year, 35 cases have been filed, compared with 30 in all of 2004 and seven in 2003. Visto itself has filed six infringement cases in Marshall in the past three years.
The California company, which makes software for sending wireless e-mail and other data, claims RIM has willfully infringed on four of its patents and is asking for a U.S. ban on BlackBerry products and services and unspecified damages.
"It's become a new hot spot in patent litigation," said a patent lawyer who has tried several cases in Marshall.
"Some of the biggest patent decisions in the world have come out of this tiny little town."
The main attraction: Judge Ward's court has earned a reputation for churning out big jury awards and handling cases with lightning speed. Nine times out of 10, dating back to 1994, plaintiffs have come up winners in jury trials.
RIM sought this week to move the case to Dallas.
Judge Ward, a plain-talking Texan who's been on the bench since 1999, vigorously defended his record in an interview Thursday.
And he conceded that he's a little overwhelmed by the deluge of cases and all the attention.
But he insisted that he never intended to create such a plaintiff-friendly environment.
"The unforeseen consequence is that it has delivered a lot more patent litigation to this district," he acknowledged. "But I never set out to build a huge patent docket."
He said he finds patent cases "intellectually challenging." Besides, he pointed out that justice delayed is justice denied.
What Judge Ward does offer is a case management system that gets notoriously complex patent cases to trial fast by setting firm schedules and forcing the parties to deal with each other quickly. The result: He's shaved six months off typical cases, and now handles most in just 12 to 14 months.
Lawyers who have been in his court agree.
"The jurisdiction has a tailored set of rules for patent cases that streamline certain of the pretrial proceedings - generally this benefits both plaintiff and defendant," said Alan Fisch, an intellectual property lawyer with Kaye Scholer in Washington.
As for the one-sided record of jury decisions, Judge Ward pointed out that none of his cases have led to awards of more than $5-million (U.S.).
Lawyers know that Texas jurors, particularly in rural areas, are notoriously staunch advocates of property rights and government authority. And that makes Texans a lot more willing to find for the plaintiff in cases involving allegations that one party has trampled on the rights of the someone holding an impressive-looking document from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, stamped with a red and gold seal.
"I think people in this part of the world still trust their government, and they think the role of the government is to protect their property," Judge Ward told Bloomberg News recently.
Critics see things quite differently. They complain that companies such as Visto are exploiting the U.S. legal system through a practice known as "venue shopping" to stack the legal deck in their favour.
They argued that Marshall has become a prime destination for so-called venue shoppers - companies and lawyers that exploit lax jurisdictional laws to take cases where they know they can win. Plaintiffs need not have any connection to Marshall or to Texas. They only need to show that a defendant does business there - a low standard for major technology companies, such as RIM or Microsoft.
"When you're going to Texas, it's because of the reputation that it's quick and juries give big awards," said Greg Aharonian, editor of a San Francisco-based patent law newspaper. "It's not about the purity of the law."
Justice isn't being served particularly well if companies are flocking to courts that offer fast service and naive jurors, he added. Mr. Aharonian pointed out that the U.S. courts, particularly in Northern California, have extensive patent expertise, and that's where much of the industry is based.
"The technology can be complex and so is the law," Mr. Aharonian added.