The United States Court of International Trade

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by Hon. Gary S. Katzmann

Voice of the Judiciary

From October 27, 2004 until September 15, 2016, it was my great privilege to serve as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.  On September 16, 2016, after evaluation by the American Bar Association, nomination by President Obama, a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and confirmation by the United States Senate, I began service as a Judge on the United States Court of International Trade (CIT).  In the federal constellation, in contrast to other specialized courts, the CIT is an Article III court, with lifetime judicial appointment, equivalent to a United States District Court, and with full powers in law and equity.  The CIT judges can also sit by designation, upon assignment by the Chief Justice of the United States, on other Article IIII courts, that is, the District Courts and Courts of Appeals throughout the nation.

With the intense focus in recent years on the global marketplace, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been heightened interest in the work of the CIT — in particular, adjudication under domestic trade laws involving protection of U.S. businesses from unfair competition arising from unfair pricing by foreign companies and unfair subsidies to foreign companies by their governments.  Yet, it should be noted that from the founding of this nation, international trade has presented matters for adjudication in our federal courts.    The first case tried in the first court organized under the Constitution of the United States involved an importation dispute.  Eventually, such disputes were heard by the U.S. Customs Court.  The Customs Court Act of 1980 replaced that court with the CIT.  That Act broadened the power of the court, creating a comprehensive system for judicial review of civil actions arising out of import transactions and federal transactions affecting international trade.   This system is rooted in the mandate of Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution that “all Duties, Imposes and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  The geographic jurisdiction of the CIT, the only national Article III trial court, encompasses all of the United States.  The CIT has nine sitting judges, including the chief judge, who is a statutory member of the Judicial Conference of the United States, as well as senior judges. The CIT sits in the James L. Watson Courthouse in New York City,  although it is authorized to sit elsewhere, including in foreign nations.  While the Second Circuit sits across the street in Foley Square, the appeals from the final decisions of CIT go not to that court but to the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., and ultimately can reach the Supreme Court.

Since the geographical jurisdiction of the court extends throughout the United States, the judges of the court are assigned, as needed, to preside at trials at any place in the United States in the appropriate United States Courthouse.  When a judge of the court conducts a trial outside New York City, the clerk of the district court in that judicial district may act as clerk of the CIT for that case, including selecting and summoning the jury.

The CIT possesses limited subject matter jurisdiction.   It may hear only cases involving particular international trade and customs law questions.  For example, the CIT hears disputes involving determinations made by the U. S. International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration regarding anti-dumping and countervailing duties (imposed when a foreign producer sells a product in the United States at a price that is below that producer’s sales price in its home market),  protests filed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection regarding classification of goods and imposition of duties, decisions regarding Trade Adjustment Assistance by the U. S. Department of Labor or U.S. Department of Agriculture for workers and sectors injured by increased imports, and customs broker licensing.  An exception to the CIT’s jurisdiction arises under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, whereby in cases involving antidumping and countervailing duties imposed on Canadian or Mexican merchandise, an interested party can request that the case be heard before a special ad hoc binational panel.

In addition to specified types of international trade cases, the CIT has residual, exclusive authority to decide any civil action against the United States and its agencies or officers that arises from any law pertaining to international trade.  Because the CIT possesses all powers in law and equity of, or as conferred by statutes on, a U.S. District Court, the CIT may grant any relief appropriate to the particular case before it, including, but not limited to, declaratory and monetary judgments, writes of mandamus, and preliminary or permanent injunctions.  The CIT also has exclusive subject matter jurisdiction of certain civil actions brought by the U.S. Government under the laws governing import transactions, as well as counterclaims, cross-claims and third party actions relating to cases pending in the Court.

A few examples:

Is a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil manufactured by an American company – such that Dixon Ticonderoga can challenge a Chinese manufacturer on the basis that it is dumping pencils on the American market – that is, at less than fair value to the detriment of American business?   The Chinese company said “no,” alleging that Dixon Ticonderoga is a Chinese manufacturer with no standing to sue under American laws.  See https://www.cit.uscourts.gov//SlipOpinions/Slip_op17/17-11.pdf

A surety company that issued bonds to multiple importers to duties imposed under the United States’ custom laws, on entries of the importers’ goods into the national commerce, challenges the U.S. Customs agency’s demands for payments on the bonds.  The surety alleges that defects in the bond forms void the bonds.  The U.S. Government, on behalf of Customs, opposes these contentions, and argues that the bonds are valid, and that sovereign immunity bars the surety’s defensive theory that its obligations are discharged because its surety rights have been impaired.  See https://www.cit.uscourts.gov//SlipOpinions/Slip_op17/17-103.pdf

Does the automatic stay in bankruptcy under the bankruptcy code stay a civil penalty action brought by the United States against the bankrupt party for alleged fraudulent representations made in the course of importing goods into the commerce of the country?

See https://www.cit.uscourts.gov//SlipOpinions/Slip_op17/17-104.pdf

How should food casings composed of both textile and plastic be classified under the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States for determining what tariff rate should apply to their importation?  Millions of dollars hang in the balance.

See https://www.cit.uscourts.gov//SlipOpinions/Slip_op17/17-149.pdf

These are all questions that have come before more me during this past, inaugural year on the court.  We see the full panoply of complex matters – including administrative agency action, statutory interpretation, standing issues, contracts, insurance, sufficiency of evidence, and the intricacies of foreign institutions and practices.   The menu of the issues, although more specialized than the diverse range presented by the general jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, are nearly always challenging.  The quality of the lawyering is generally excellent, with appearances by many of the large firms and boutique firms specializing in international trade; the U.S.  Department of Justice appears in every case on behalf of the Department of Commerce.  There is a civility among the bar that is impressive.

Although our cases can include jury trials (such as a battle of experts in a customs classification case where the essence of a good is in controversy), the great bulk of our work is judicial review of administrative action – that is, appeals from agency decisions.  In this respect, the work is the work of an appellate judge, and not really different from adjudication on the Appeals Court.  Of course, one important distinction is that while an Appeals Court judge must persuade two other panelists comprising the three judge panel, on the CIT, with the exception of cases raising constitutional or vital public policy issues, we each sit alone.  On the Appeals Court, there is a great volume of cases, and typically, for those cases that are argued, not more than thirty minutes is allotted to a case.  On the CIT, while the volume is less, the records in each case are huge and the multiple issues raised by each case are complex.   In this respect, the cases are akin in size to antitrust or multidistrict litigation.   I have adopted the practice of some of my colleagues of sending counsel, at least two weeks in advance of argument, the many questions I will ask at oral argument.  It is not uncommon for the arguments in a case to last two or three hours, but because the parties have the benefit of the questions and the ensuing discussion is truly a search to address challenging legal questions or to elucidate the record, the time flies.  I have found that sending the questions in advance removes the “gotcha” quality of argument and truly advances the dialogue between the court and counsel.  In retrospect, I have thought of some cases during my tenure on the Appeals Court when such a practice would have been beneficial to the process of decision.

As on the Appeals Court, on the CIT, the ultimate judicial product in a case is the opinion.  On the Appeals Court, my view was that the decision should be understandable not only to the experienced litigator but to those unschooled in the law.  So too on the CIT, my goal is to produce opinions which strip away the legal jargon and demystify the complex international trade cases that affect in a very real way the every day quality of life in this country.

Reminiscing about his service on the First Circuit, at my investiture Justice Breyer noted the longstanding connection to the First Circuit established by the CIT judges who sat by designation.   Other judges and practitioners have remembered the CIT judges who have sat in the District Court in Boston over the years.   Beyond that, the CIT, as constituted by a single judge, has sat in Boston in the adjudication of cases under the court’s jurisdiction.  The relationship between the court and the Massachusetts legal community has been historic.  May it continue to thrive.

Judge Katzmann is a Judge on the United States Court of International Trade.  He previously served as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.   He is a former member of the BBJ Board of Editors.



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