Sunday, April 01, 2012

Gazing at a Gazebo Leads to Decision

The Court of International Trade does not actually preside over very many trials in classification cases. Most of those cases do not involve disputed facts and are resolved on motions and legal arguments without the need for witness testimony. There was, however, a trial in Target Stores v. United States, and I wish I had seen it.

The issue in the case was the proper tariff classification of imported gazebos with textile coverings. Customs and Border Protection wanted them classified in HTSUS Heading 6306 as tents. The importer asserted that the proper classification was in Heading 7308 as structures of iron or steel. It appears that this case involved a couple side shows, which bear discussion.

First, the United States attempted to give up on the case by proposing a stipulated judgment classifying much of the merchandise as proposed by plaintiff and some of it in Heading 4421 for wooden structures. But, in transmitting the proposed stipulation, the United States stated that it had no intention of applying that result to other cases currently pending before the Court of International Trade that appear to address the very same issues. Technically, either party can do this. Every entry on every denied protest represents a potentially separate cause of action. For reasons that may not make sense anymore, a CIT decision in one case does not bind it with respect to the next case covering the exact same parties and merchandise. For the lawyers out there and anyone else interested in the topic, the rules is that res judicata does not apply but stare decisis does. It is unclear how the Court addressed this dispute except that a trial was held, so the motion for entry of judgment must have been denied.

The second side issue had to do with the admissibility of a transcript and decision by the Canadian International Trade Tribunal ("CITT") regarding the same issue. That case, which was proffered as evidence by Target, is reported here. For background, note that the CITT is an administrative body more akin to the International Trade Commission than to the Court of International Trade. So the CITT is more like the ITC than the CIT. Appeals from the CITT go to the federal courts in Canada. The Court of International Trade avoided a decision on this issue by stating only that it did not need to look beyond U.S. law to make its determination.

The attempt to introduce the CITT transcript and decision as evidence raises very interesting issues of law. First, CIT Rule 44.1 certainly contemplates the introduction of evidence of foreign law, but it does not spell out for what purpose. It is easy to envision a situation in a value case where a question of foreign tax or labor law were relevant to showing costs of production. It is harder to see how a CITT decision on tariff classification could be more than an example of another experienced decision maker addressing the same question. In that case, the CITT decision would be entitled to respect similar to a law review article or other possibly persuasive writing.

What plaintiff wanted was for the Court to consider the CITT decision in the context of the internationally harmonized nature of the tariff schedule. This is a big-time issue of international law and American politics. There is a subset of American legal thinkers who are very adverse to the notion that the law of other countries can inform the decisions of U.S. courts. Given the fact that the HTSUS arises out of an international convention seeking the harmonization of tariff classification, this may be a special case in which foreign interpretations of the law are uniquely informative. Personally, I don't see it that way. In fact, I have argued against that proposition in a case the plaintiff relied upon in its response to the government's motion to exclude this evidence. While there may be some float toward referencing, if not outright reliance on, foreign classification decisions, I don't think the law is fully there as of yet. After all, the CIT has an obligation to make an independent and de novo interpretation of the law. So, looking to foreign decision should be no more persuasive than looking at any other non-binding reference (like this blog, for example).

On the actual merits, the trial appears to have been dominated by a single physical exhibit: a gazebo set up in the court room. That's what I would have liked to have seen. Based almost exclusively on its proximity to the exhibit, the Court found that the merchandise does not constitute tents. There are numerous features that distinguish these gazebos from tents including the lack of guy wires or ropes and anchor pegs, which show, in part, that gazebos are permanent structures while tents are temporary and portable shelters. Further, the Court noted that tents are intended as shelters from the elements while gazebos are typically used "during moments of acceptable ambient air temperatures and meteorological tranquility."

Thus, we have a judgment for the plaintiff.

1 comment:

business loans said...

It should end up well. All members are agreeing to the decision.