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Target Trade Suit Seeks Tariff Equality

Joining the effort to bring a sexual revolution of sorts to the U.S. tariff schedule, Target Corp. filed suit in the Court of International Trade to even out the duties charged on similar products for women and men.

WASHINGTON — Joining the effort to bring a sexual revolution of sorts to the U.S. tariff schedule, Target Corp. filed suit in the Court of International Trade to even out the duties charged on similar products for women and men.

The case highlights a growing trend that combines constitutional law, trade policy, gender issues and retailers’ bottom lines, and has led to several similar suits in the New York-based court.

The case points out that woven man-made fiber swimwear for men, for instance, is charged duties of 27.8 percent, while a similar product for women has duties of just 11.8 percent. In all, the case filed last week addresses 42 types of goods.

Target not only is aiming to bring the tariffs into line by lowering the higher rate, but is seeking to recover two years’ worth of what it considers to be excess duty already paid.

Industry-wide, the money paid for the higher tariffs for one gender or the other adds up.

“It’s $300 million a year at stake,” said Michael Cone, a Neville Peterson attorney working on the retailer’s case.

There might not be much for the company to have to prove in the suit.

“If the courts hold that the companies have standing to allege they were discriminated against on the basis of gender, then the burden shifts to the government,” said Cone.

The case, which also takes aim at varying tariff rates accessed on goods intended for people of different ages, might find its way to the Supreme Court.

“This is an unusual case that squarely involves a constitutional issue and a lot of money,” said Cone. “It’s not squarely decided by precedent.”

The dynamic is one that has been a part of the trading landscape for some time.

“It’s been around for over 150 years,” said Cone, noting the practice of charging different duty rates for men’s and women’s goods predates the equal protection clause. “It wasn’t even actionable back when it started and it kept being recycled in all these new tariff laws that were written over the years.”

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Companies don’t appear to have been interested in tackling the issue until recently.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office declined to comment on the case since it is ongoing.