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Glass v. United States

Decided: December 18, 1990.


Appealed from: U.S. Court of International Trade; Judge Aquilino.

Rich, Mayer, and Michel, Circuit Judges.


MICHEL, Circuit Judge

Libbey Glass appeals the February 13, 1990 judgment of the United States Court of International Trade dismissing its suit to reclassify items of beverageware manufactured and imported by J.G. Durand International. Libbey Glass v. United States, 736 F. Supp. 277 (Ct. Int'l Trade 1990). Because the court correctly construed and applied the tariff term "toughened (specially tempered)" to the imported glassware, we affirm.


J.G. Durand International manufactures, and imports into the United States from France, tempered glass beverageware, including six products designated "Artic Stemware" (consisting of "Champagne," "Wine," and "Goblet" drinking glasses) and "Artic Tumblers" ("Old Fashioned," "Highball," and "Beverage" drinking glasses).

The Customs Service originally classified Durand's drinking glasses under item 546.38 of the Tariff Schedules of the United States (TSUS)*fn1, which covers "Glassware . . . pressed and toughened (specially tempered), chiefly used for preparing, serving, or storing food or beverages, or food or beverage ingredients." Arguing that Durand's glassware was not really "specially tempered" so as to qualify for the relatively low tariff under item 546.38, Libbey Glass in 1981 petitioned the Customs Service, as provided in 19 U.S.C. § 1516 (1988), to reclassify nine of Durand's products under TSUS items 546.52 through 546.68, which cover "other" glassware and impose a higher tariff. The Customs Service granted the petition as to three items of glassware (designated "Grand Vin"), but denied it as to the six "Artic Stemware" and "Artic Tumblers" products, T.D. 83-154, 17 Cust. B. & Dec. 332, 340 (1983). Libbey contested the Customs Service's decision as to Durand's "Artic Stemware" and "Artic Tumblers" by filing suit against the United States in the Court of International Trade, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1581(b) and 2631(b) (1982), requesting reclassification of the Durand merchandise under TSUS item 546.52 ("other" glassware, "Valued not over $0.30 each") or item 546.60 ("Valued over $0.30 but not over $3 each"). The burden of proving error in the Custom Service's determination was on Libbey, 28 U.S.C. § 2639(a)(1) (1988), and after trial on the merits, the court rendered a decision upholding the classification, Libbey, 14 C.I.T. 91, 736 F. Supp. at 284. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(5) (1988), we have exclusive jurisdiction over Libbey's appeal.


Whether a particular product fits the definition of a term in the TSUS is a question of fact, which we reverse only if clearly erroneous. E.g., Daw Industries, Inc. v. United States, 714 F.2d 1140, 1142 (Fed. Cir. 1983). The meaning of a particular term, however, is a question of law, and therefore not entitled to the deference we exercise with respect to fact questions. Id. Likewise, the ultimate issue of whether a particular product has been correctly classified is a question of law. See Amersham Corp. v. United States, 728 F.2d 1453, 1455 (Fed. Cir. 1984).


Libbey argues that the construction of TSUS item 546.38 employed by the Customs Service and the Court of International Trade is wrong because it gives different meanings to the phrase "toughened (specially tempered)" in two different provisions of the Tariff Schedules. TSUS item 544.31, found in the subpart of TSUS Schedule 5 dealing with "flat glass and products thereof," covers "toughened (specially tempered) glass . . . whether or not shaped or framed or both." The U.S. Tariff Commission's Tariff Classification Study of November 15, 1960, part of the legislative history of the TSUS, stated that this provision was intended to cover "specially tempered glass that is more resistant to shock than ordinarily tempered glass, and, when broken, disintegrates into small rounded-edge pieces, rendering it particularly adaptable to vehicle glazing." The flat glass covered by 544.31 -- often called "safety glass" -- is commonly used in automobile windshields, large glass doors, and other applications in which it is important that the glass have no sharp edges when it breaks.

Item 546.38 was not accompanied by an explanatory note in the Tariff Classification Study similar to that accompanying 544.31. But Libbey argues that under the principle that statutes in pari materia (i.e., relating to the same subject matter) should be read, construed, and applied together, "toughened (specially tempered)" should have the same meaning in 546.38 as in 544.31. Specifically, Libbey maintains that for drinking glasses to qualify for classification under item 546.38, they must completely "dice" -- crumble safely into small, rounded-edge pieces -- when broken, like the flat safety glass classified under 544.31.

The trial court found, and indeed it is undisputed, that while the Durand glasses at issue here do exhibit a considerable degree of dicing upon breakage, they do not dice completely, as a piece of flat safety glass would. Rather, when a Durand tempered drinking glass is broken, it largely disintegrates into harmless gravel, but with some larger, sharp-edged shards also present. Libbey therefore argues that if "toughened (specially tempered)" is given the same meaning in 546.38 as in 544.31, which requires complete dicing, the Durand glassware at issue does not qualify.

Libbey's argument has a certain superficial plausibility. As Libbey points out, "there is a natural presumption that identical words used in different parts of the same act are intended to have the same meaning." Helvering v. Stockholms Enskilda Bank, 293 U.S. 84, 87, 79 L. Ed. 211, 55 S. Ct. 50 (1934) (quoting Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433, 52 S. Ct. 607, 76 L. Ed. 1204 (1932)). Thus, it would seem logical to read "toughened (specially tempered)" as having the same meaning from one section of the Tariff Schedules to another. But "the presumption [of identical meaning] readily yields to the controlling force of the circumstance that the words, though in the same act, are ...

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