WWRD U.S., LLC v. United States, Slip Op 17-21 March 1, 2017
This recent decision from the U.S. Court of International Trade concerned the tariff classification of dinnerware in Thanksgiving and Christmas motifs. WWRD sought classification of this festive themed merchandise under 9817.95.01 which covers:
Articles classifiable in subheadings 3924.10, 3926.90, 6307.90, 6911.10, 6912.00, 7013.22, 7013.28, 7013.41, 7013.49, 9405.20, 9405.40 or 9405.50, the foregoing meeting the descriptions set forth below:
Utilitarian articles of a kind used in the home in the performance of specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations for religious or cultural holidays, or religious festive occasions, such as Seder plates, blessing cups, menorahs or kinaras
All of the merchandise at issue in this case would otherwise be classified in the listed subheadings and consisted of utilitarian articles used in the home for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners. Thus, the merchandise met the first three requirements for classification under subheading 9817.95.01.
The court interpreted the scope of the language from the word performance to the end of the subheading as indicating a fourth element requiring a ritual. The court applied a very narrow interpretation of this term ritual and held that Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner are not rituals. Thus, none of the merchandise in this case met the requirements for classification as festive articles, according to the court.
WWWRD U.S. will likely appeal this decision and they would seem to have some good arguments to raise. First, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner are events celebrated by hundreds of millions of people in this country. Families gather to celebrate the holidays by sharing a meal together. Many families start the Thanksgiving dinner with the ritual of saying “Grace,” a prayer blessing of thanks for the bounty of the food they are about to consume. Most people would consider these big family dinners to be rituals or at least to include rituals such as the carving of the roast beast in the Dr. Seuss story “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
Second, the phrase “or religious festive occasions” is separated from the rest of the language of the subheading by commas. That indicates this is a separate and independent clause which notably does not include a ritual requirement. Also, the use of the plural “descriptions” confirms that there are at least two separate and independent clauses “set forth below.” Thanksgiving, as everyone knows, was started by the Pilgrims centuries ago as they celebrated surviving in the New World. Christmas dinner is obviously also associated with a religious holiday.
Third, the court’s interpretation of this subheading may violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, First Amendment, which bans the Federal Government from enacting any laws that favor one religion over another. A cardinal rule for the courts in interpreting statutes is to interpret such statutes in a manner that they do not violate the U.S. Constitution, whenever possible.