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U.S. Supreme Court

National Lead Co. v. United States, 252 U.S. 140 (1920)

National Lead Company v. United States

No. 123

Argued January 12, 13, 1920

Decided March 1, 1920

252 U.S. 140



Section 22 of the Act of August 27, 1894, c. 349, 28 Stat. 509, provides:

"That where imported materials on which duties have been paid are used in the manufacture of articles manufactured or produced in the United States, there shall be allowed on the exportation of such articles a drawback equal in amount to the duties paid on the materials used, less one percentum of such duties,"

to be paid under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe. Where linseed was imported subject to a specific duty of 20 cents per bushel of 56 pounds, and made into linseed oil and oilcake, a byproduct weighing more but worth less than the oil, held that the drawback on the oil-cake, which alone was exported, should be computed on the basis of the respective values of the two products, and not according to their respective weights. P. 252 U. S. 143.

Much weight is given to a contemporaneous and long continued construction of an indefinite or ambiguous statute by the executive department charged with its administration. P. 252 U. S. 145.

The repeated reenactment of a statute without substantial change may amount to an implied legislative approval of a construction placed upon it by executive officers. P. 252 U. S. 146.

53 Ct.Clms. 635 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 252 U. S. 143

MR. JUSTICE CLARKE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit to recover the difference between the amount of drawback allowed by the government to the appellant, a corporation, as an exporter of linseed oil cake, and the amount to which it claims to be entitled under § 22 of the Act of Congress effective August 27, 1894, c. 349, 28 Stat. 509, 551, which reads as follows:

"That where imported materials on which duties have been paid are used in the manufacture of articles manufactured or produced in the United States, there shall be allowed on the exportation of such articles a drawback equal in amount to the duties paid on the materials used, less one percentum of such duties. . . ."

It is further provided in the section that the drawback due thereon shall be paid to the manufacturer, producer, or exporter "under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe."

The appellant imported large quantities of linseed upon which it paid a specific duty of twenty cents per bushel of fifty-six pounds. This seed, when treated by a simple process, yielded about twenty pounds of linseed oil and about thirty-six pounds of linseed oil cake to the bushel. The oil was much more valuable than the oil cake, the latter being composed of the solid substance of the seed and a small amount of oil not recovered, which made it valuable as a feed for stock. It is a byproduct, and, except for the small amount of oil in it, would be mere waste.

Appellant exported large quantities of oil cake, derived from seed which it had imported, and made demand in proper form for the drawback provided for by the act of Congress.

The law providing for such drawbacks has differed in form of expression from time to time, but, since the Act of August 5, 1861, c. 45, 12 Stat. 292, it has not differed in

Page 252 U. S. 144

substance from the Act of 1894 as we have quoted it. The number of articles to which the law is applicable is very great, among them, notably, "refined sugar and syrup which come from imported raw sugar and refined sugar and syrup which come from imported molasses."

The Court of Claims found that:

"From August 5, 1861, to the present time the practice of the Treasury Department where several articles are manufactured from the same imported material has been to calculate and to pay the drawback by distributing the duty paid on the imported material between such articles in proportion to the value, and not in proportion to their weight, as well where the imported material paid a specific as well as where it paid an ad valorem duty. Such calculation and payment had been made under Treasury Department regulations."

The claim of the appellant is that the correct construction of the section relied upon requires that the drawback should be computed on the basis of the weights of the oil and oil cake derived by the process of manufacture from the seed, instead of on the basis of the values of the two products, as it was computed by the government, and the question for decision is whether the department regulation is a valid interpretation of the statute.

The act quoted provides that, where imported materials are used in this country in the manufacture of articles which are exported, a drawback shall be allowed "equal in amount to the duties paid on the material used," less one percentum. What was the amount of duty paid on the small amount of oil and on the large amount of solid substance, the hull and the fiber, which made up the exported oil cake? Was it substantially two-thirds of the total, determined by weight -- on thirty-six of fifty-six pounds -- or was it about one-fourth of the total, as determined by the relative values of the oil and of the oil cake derived from the seed?

Page 252 U. S. 145

The terms of the provision show that the contingency of having one kind of dutiable material, from which two or more kinds of manufactured products might be derived, is not specifically provided for. Obviously only a part, the least valuable part, of the materials or ingredients of the linseed were used in the making of oil cake, and therefor the problem of determining the "drawback equal in amount to the duty paid" on the part so used -- the solid parts of the seed and the small amount of oil in the oil cake -- was not a simple or an easy one.

The statute, thus indefinite, if not ambiguous, called for construction by the department, and the regulation adapted to cases such as we have here commends itself strongly to our judgment.

It does not seem possible that Congress could have intended that two-thirds of the duty should be returned when one-quarter in value of the manufactured product should be exported, or that the exporter should retain twenty pounds of oil, estimated in the findings as worth about seven and one-half cents a pound, derived from each bushel of seed, and recover two-thirds of the duty paid when he exported thirty-six pounds of seed cake, worth slightly more than one cent a pound, derived from the same bushel of seed. Such results -- they must follow the acceptance of the appellant's contention -- should be allowed only under compulsion of imperative language such as is not to be found in the section we are considering.

We prefer the reasonable interpretation of the department, which results in a refund of one-quarter of the duty when one-quarter of the value of the product is exported.

From Edwards v. Darby, 12 Wheat. 206, to Jacobs v. Prichard,, 223 U. S. 200, it has been the settled law that, when uncertainty or ambiguity such as we have here is found in a statute, great weight will be given to the contemporaneous construction by department officials who were called upon to act under the law and to carry its provisions

Page 252 U. S. 146

into effect, especially where such construction has been long continued, as it was in this case for almost forty years before the petition was filed. United States v. Hill, 120 U. S. 169.

To this we must add that the department's interpretation of the statute has had such implied approval by Congress that it should not be disturbed, particularly as applied to linseed and its products.

The drawback provision, under which the construction complained of originated, continued unchanged from 1861 until the revision of the statute in 1870, and the Court of Claims finds that the rule for determining the drawback on oil cake was applied during the whole of that period of almost ten years. The Tariff Act approved July 14, 1870, c. 255, 16 Stat. 256, 265, expressly provided, in the flaxseed or linseed paragraph, "that no drawback shall be allowed on oil cake made from imported seed," and this provision was continued in the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, c. 121, 22 Stat. 488, 513, and in the Act of October 1, 1890, c. 1244, 26 Stat. 567, 586. But in the Act of 1894, 28 Stat. 509, 523, the prohibition was eliminated, thus restoring the law on this subject as applied to this material to what it was in substance from 1861 to 1870. United States v. Philbrick, 120 U. S. 52, 120 U. S. 59. During all the intervening twenty-four years, this rule of the department with respect to drawbacks had been widely applied to many articles of much greater importance than linseed or its derivatives, and the practice was continued, linseed included after 1894, until the petition in this case was filed. The reenacting of the drawback provision four times, without substantial change, while this method of determining what should be paid under it was being constantly employed, amounts to an implied legislative recognition and approval of the executive construction of the statute (United States v. Philbrick, supra; United States v. G. Falk & Brother, 204 U. S. 143, 204 U. S. 152; @ 209 U. S. 256.

This case would not deserve even the limited discussion which we thus have given it were it not for the extensive and long continued application of the regulation of the department to imported and exported materials other than such as are here involved. This specific case is sufficiently ruled by the clear and satisfactory decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, rendered twenty-two years ago, in United States v. Dean Linseed Oil Co., 87 F.4d 3, in which the Court of Claims found authority for dismissing the plaintiff's petition. The judgment of the Court of Claims is


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