A Question of Credentials

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How much background experience does a political appointee need to hold a senior job in a federal agency?

That question has been raised in a lawsuit filed by four California patent lawyers and inventors against Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. They allege that his appointment of Margaret J. A. Peterlin as deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is part of the Commerce Department, violates 1999 amendments to the Patent Act.

In that law, Congress stipulated that the director and deputy director must each have "professional experience and background in patent or trademark law."

Peterlin, who took office in April, served as counsel for legal policy and national security adviser to J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) when he was House speaker. In that job, she advised GOP congressional leaders on legislative policy issues, including intellectual property protection.

She previously served as general counsel to Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), a former House majority leader. A graduate of the University of Chicago law school, Peterlin, 36, also clerked for a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit argues that Peterlin is not qualified to hold the job because she does not meet the law's definition and asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order the Commerce secretary to fire her.

The lawsuit alleges that Peterlin has never drafted a patent or trademark application, has never prepared a legal opinion on whether an invention is entitled to a patent and has no experience "in managing large-scale information workflow organizations," such as the patent office.

Asked about the lawsuit, Brigid Quinn, a patent office spokeswoman, said Peterlin is "well qualified" to serve as the agency's deputy director. Peterlin has "had direct involvement in oversight of the USPTO and every piece of patent, trademark and copyright-related legislation considered on the House floor over the past five years," Quinn said.

The patent office released a letter yesterday sent by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and former representative Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) to Gutierrez that praises the Clinton and Bush administrations for naming "highly qualified" appointees at the patent office.

The issue of whether political appointees need a certain level of experience in the work of their agencies has been increasingly debated in recent years, mostly in the context of ensuring proper leadership for the Department of Homeland Security.

When introducing such bills, members of Congress often cite the Federal Emergency Management Agency's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. The agency's leader at the time, Michael D. Brown, was a lawyer and a judge of Arabian horses who had no disaster-response experience before joining FEMA.

Peterlin's appointment is different in that she comes to the patent office from another branch of government. The White House often turns to Capitol Hill to recruit for specialized jobs in the executive branch and, unlike Brown, Peterlin has experience shaping federal policy. In that sense, she is like many executive branch appointees who began their government careers on Capitol Hill and were recruited by their political party because of their loyalty and inside experience.

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