Court of International Trade

In a recent decision, the Court of International Trade shot down an importer’s argument that its Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed serve ware and dinnerware should be exempt from duties as instruments of “specific religious or cultural ritual celebrations.”

Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo

Subheading 9817.95.01 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (“HTSUS”) provides that no duty is to be assessed for: “[u]tilitarian 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.”

The crux of importer, WWRD US LLC’s, argument was that the definition of “cultural ritual” was sufficiently broad so as to include the traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  The importer put forth a variety of definitions of the term “ritual”, including Merriam Websters’s definition of “a customarily repeated often formal act or series of acts.”

Judge Mark A. Barnett, however, derived the Court’s understanding of the scope of the subheading from the exemplars included therein.  While Judge Barnett did not question the cultural significance of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, his opinion focused on the subheading’s requirement of “specific” rituals.  The exemplars, the Seder plate used during Passover, the menorah used during Hanukkah, and the kinara used during Kwanzaa, involved specific sequential rituals, not merely the observance of a recurring event such as Thanksgiving of Christmas dinner.

Ultimately, the ITC found that US Customs and Border Protection’s classifications and resulting duty rates, ranging between 3% and 6%, were proper.  While the importer’s creative classification argument was unsuccessful in this case, a zealous advocate can make a significant difference in the duties, and the bottom line, of any import transaction.