Lamps, Lanterns, and Justice

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has affirmed the Court of International Trade decision in The Gerson Company v.United States. This is the case you may remember from here, in which we discussed the difference between a lamp and a bulb.

As is the case in most classification cases, the issue on appeal was the same as it was below. Here, that means whether artificial tea light candles and similar devices are "lamps" of Heading 9405 or "electrical machines and apparatus . . . not specified or included elsewhere" of Heading 8543. It is relevant for purposes of discussion that Heading 8543 includes the subheading "electric luminescent lamps," at 8543.70.70 (now .71)

The Court of Appeals agreed that in a "hyper technical" sense, the artificial candles are electrical machines or apparatus. But, they are also lamps. What to do?

The Court noted that the apparent conflict (or ambiguity) can be resolved by reading the statute as a whole. Context matters. Looking at it in that light the Court found that 8543 must be more limited in scope than was proposed by plaintiff. If lamps are electrical machines and apparatus of 8543, and consequently excluded from 9405, what remains of 9405? Only non-electric lamps. That seems incongruous in that 9405 expressly covers searchlights and spotlights, which are presumably electrical. Furthermore, the Explanatory Notes describe lamps of 9405 as including lamps of any material that use any source of light, including electricity.

That would include lanterns. This one, for example, is perpetually powerful and able to recharge all your devices, including any extraterrestrial power rings you may have received from dying pink aliens. It would not be very useful in brightest day, but would be welcome in blackest night. [Yes, it has been a while since I did that kind of aside. It feels good.]

The description of electric lamps as complete items squares with the Explanatory Notes to Chapter 85, which describes that chapter as covering electrical goods not generally used independently. Rather, goods of Chapter 85 tend to play a particular role as a component in electrical equipment. To me, that sounds like a "bulb."

Gerson made several valiant arguments to overcome this analysis. It argued against using the Explanatory Notes to add limitations to the plain meaning of a Heading. It also argued that the Court of International Trade improperly treated these competing headings as controlled by use. Neither argument gained any traction.

There are a couple important analytical points to take from this case. First, the HTSUS is a statute that will be read as a whole to avoid conflicts. Any classification analysis that eliminates a potential heading must do so producing a consistent and logical reading of both headings. You can't leave one heading so limited in scope as to be effectively meaningless.

Second, always compare headings at the heading level. The fact that "electric luminescent lamps" appears in a subheading of 8543 does not dictate the scope of the heading.

One last point I think is worthy of note. The Court of International Trade almost always starts a classification analysis noting its obligation to reach the correct result. This comes from a 1984 Court of Appeals decision called Jarvis Clark Co. v. United States. The opinion was written by visiting Senior Circuit Judge John Minor Wisdom. Initially, it is important to linger at the beauty of being a judge named "Wisdom," (ignore the "Minor" part). That is like being a doctor named "Jane Curesall" or a super-villain named "Ed Nigma."

Regarding the Court's obligation to find the correct result, the Court of Appeals instructed:
The clear intent of Congress was to change the operation of the dual burden by requiring the Court of International Trade to reach a correct result. This requirement is not inconsistent with the presumption of correctness embodied in § 2639(a)(1). The importer still has the burden of establishing that the government's classification is wrong. Ordinarily it will be difficult to meet this burden of proof without proposing a better classification. But the trial court cannot determine the correct result simply by dismissing the importer's alternative as incorrect. It must consider whether the government's classification is correct, both independently and in comparison with the importer's alternative. In some cases, the government's classification may be so patently incorrect that the importer can overcome the presumption of correctness without producing a more satisfactory alternative. In other cases, the importer's alternative may have faults and yet still be a better classification than the government's. In either case, the court's duty is to find the correct result, by whatever procedure is best suited to the case at hand.
Apparently, this obligation does not attach to the Court of Appeals.  I gather that because in footnote 3 of this decision, the Court points to two alternative classifications, neither of which Gerson presented as alternative classifications. Because they were not argued, the Federal Circuit did not consider them. Had the CIT been aware of these alternatives, under Jarvis Clark, I think it would have been obligated to consider and, as appropriate, reject them. There may be no practical consequence to this difference in process. But, someday, there will be an odd case in which the best classification occurs to neither of the parties and not to the CIT. In that case, I guess the Federal Circuit would remand for further consideration.


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