This blog reported on August 30, 2009 that Chief Judge Jane Restani of the U.S. Court of International Trade (“CIT”) ordered the U.S. Department of Commerce (“Commerce”) to revoke the countervailing duty (“CVD”) order on pneumatic off-the-road tires from the People’s Republic of China in a case titled GPX International Tire Corporation v. United States.  Her reasoning was that Commerce was unable to eliminate the double-counting inherent in imposing CVDs while at the same time imposing antidumping duties calculated by using Commerce’s non-market economy (“NME”) methodology. Commerce appealed the CIT’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Federal Circuit”). On December 19, 2011, the Federal Circuit upheld the CIT’s decision but for different reasons than those offered by Chief Judge Restani.

The Federal Circuit held that the U.S. CVD statute prohibits applying countervailing duties to NMEs. It found:

that when amending and reenacting [the] countervailing duty law in 1988 and 1994, Congress legislatively ratified earlier consistent administrative and judicial interpretations that government payments cannot be characterized as “subsidies” in a non-market economy context, and thus that countervailing duty law does not apply to [non-market economy] countries.

This finding, as a matter of U.S. law, definitively prohibits Commerce from applying CVDs even in cases without a companion antidumping investigation where there is no risk of double-counting. It has much broader impact than the CIT decision that Commerce appealed because the CIT would have permitted CVD investigations and orders, denying only CVD investigations and orders simulaneous and on the same goods as antidumping orders. It also has much broader impact than the WTO ruling in China’s favor on the application of countervailing duties in non-market economy cases, as reported on this blog on April 25, 2011, because the WTO challenge was based exclusively on the issue of double-counting.

Commerce determined that the CVD law could not apply to NMEs in a 1983 steel case against Czechoslovakia.  The petitioners appealed.  The Federal Circuit agreed with Commerce and established the rule that CVD petitions could not be filed against NMEs in Georgetown Steel Corp. v. United States.

In GPX Tire Corporation, the Federal Circuit reviewed the legislative history and concluded that Congress was well aware that Commerce and the courts were interpreting the CVD law as being inapplicable to NMEs when Congress amended the CVD law in 1984, 1988 and again in 1994. The Federal Circuit held that congressional awareness of this interpretation, when it amended the statute, constitutes legislative ratification of that interpretation. The court reasoned that in the face of this legislative ratification of Commerce’s previous determination that the CVD laws do not apply to NMEs, Commerce is no longer free to change its mind. The Federal Circuit concluded that:

Although Commerce has wide discretion in administering countervailing duty and antidumping law, it cannot exercise this discretion contrary to congressional intent. We affirm the holding of the Trade Court that countervailing duties cannot be applied to goods from [non-market economy] countries. As we concluded in Georgetown Steel, if Commerce believes that the law should be changed, the appropriate approach is to seek legislative change.

Commerce must now wish it had never appealed Judge Restani’s decision. Under the U.S. judicial system, Judge Restani’s decision only bound Commerce in the specific case that she had decided. Commerce was free to continue to apply countervailing duties in other NME cases because the CIT does not set precedent and its decsions only govern specific cases. By contrast, the Federal Circuit’s decision is precedent that binds the lower courts and Commerce not only in the specific case before the court, but in all future cases.

Judge Restani’s decision was based on the double-counting problem and had left Commerce free to use the CVD law in any cases in which there was not a companion antidumping case. It also had left open the possibility that Commerce, in a future case, might find a solution to the double-counting problem and impose both antidumping and countervailing duties on the same product. Because the Federal Circuit’s decision is based on its finding that the U.S. statute prohibits applying countervailing duties to NMEs, it will take an act of Congress before Commerce can again impose countervailing duties on a non-market economy.