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“What Would Carl Do?” – In Memoriam

by Paul Vandevert
Principal, Vandevert Trade Law 

I have been a Customs and international trade lawyer since I graduated from law school in 1987 and have lived and practiced in Michigan since I went to work for General Motors as a Customs attorney in 1994.  I recently learned that Carl Soller, also a Customs lawyer and frequent contributor to this column, died at the end of January.  At the same time, I read further reporting about an ongoing controversial and economically damaging policy imposed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the Port of Detroit, which hampers trade through all Michigan water ports.  Without offering any explanation or rationale, CBP Detroit has continued this policy despite appeals from some of the state’s largest traders (and employers), shipping companies, port authorities and even members of Congress from both political parties. This issue particularly incenses me, because at its core, it is a persistent problem with Customs that I have encountered ever since I began practicing as a lawyer, with Carl Soller, my first boss at a New York City Customs law boutique.

While the other partners and attorneys at the firm taught me the fundamentals of Customs regulation:  tariff classification, marking, valuation, drawback, etc., Carl taught me a profound skill –  how to use and wield the law to hold Customs and the other government agencies that regulate our clients accountable for their actions, as well as and perhaps more important – their inaction.  In so doing, he validated and encouraged my nascent sense that our laws and regulations are not just a series of barriers and obstacles; the law is a toolkit for lawyers to use to advance the interests of their clients and at the same time to uphold and defend the rule of law for society.  In zealously representing his clients, a pillar ethical obligation for all lawyers, Carl exemplified the principle that rule of law applies equally to those who govern and regulate as well as the governed and regulated.

For those that might not be aware of the issue, for some time now, CBP in Detroit, which has jurisdiction over all border entry points in Michigan on land and water, has effectively prohibited the import and export of containerized and other ocean cargoes by imposing impossible to meet screening standards for containers and refusing to provide inspection services for non-containerized goods.  At the same time, CBP in the ports of Toledo and Cleveland, which also do not have this screening equipment, are under the jurisdiction of the Chicago CBP district, and apply far more lenient and accommodating policies for the same type of cargo.  In fact, CBP in Toledo and Cleveland have received and processed most, if not all, of the cargo rejected by Detroit CBP, from where it has then been trucked overland to their destinations in Michigan.   A study by the University of Michigan found that Detroit CBP’s singular screening and inspections policies have cost the Port of Monroe in Michigan alone around $50 million in lost revenue and hundreds of jobs. 

Officials with the Port of Monroe, as well as the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, shipping companies, and major exporters like Ford and GM have done everything “right” in trying to persuade CBP in Detroit to change direction.  They have met with the CBP Detroit port director and his senior staff and they have met with top officials at CBP headquarters in Washington.  Democrat Senator Gary Peters and Republican Representative Tim Walberg have been involved arguing for CBP to pull up this dragging anchor on Michigan’s economy.  Peters and Walberg have even called for an investigation of CBP by the federal Government Accountability Office.  At those meetings, CBP has said that it is listening and that it will review the issue internally and respond “soon.”  To date, however, CBP remains unmoved; Michigan’s water ports remain all but closed to international trade. 

Carl Soller would be the first to say that he wasn’t surprised; neither am I.  We learned long ago that when a port digs in on an issue, the culture and organization of Customs is such that it is highly unlikely any level of intervention will get that port to change.  More simply put, after a point, continued talking with CBP is just wasted breath.  This kind of problem is not about substantive issues, it is not about politics; it is about how an agency runs without concern for the business that relies on it. 

For me, the question has become: “What would Carl have done?”  I’m pretty sure that Carl would have opened up the legal toolkit for a solution.  One idea that Carl used himself:  Obtain a writ of mandamus from a federal court that would force CBP Detroit to lift its restrictions or else provide a reasonable explanation why CBP can treat Michigan differently from every other port in the country.  There are other tools in this legal toolkit.  To honor a fighter like Carl and to serve Michigan’s trade community, we need to find a solution that will open our ports to trade.

Paul Vandevert founded Vandevert Trade Law in 2018, after serving for more than 23 years as in-house trade counsel at Ford and GM.  Paul’s mission is to serve as Advocate and Counsel to Importers and Exporters in the automotive and manufacturing industries. He can be reached at 313-737-3675 or 

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