Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer


In the early 1950s, the United States was at war in Korea as part of a United Nations “police action.” American steelworkers were threatening to strike over wages and collective bargaining disagreements with steel companies. The president made every attempt to intervene and to help the parties negotiate an agreement. A strike would have disrupted the supply of steel, leading to a possible shortage of steel during the war effort and an increase in prices in all products made of steel. Despite all efforts, the parties were unable to reach agreement. Just before the steelworkers were to go on strike, President Truman ordered Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize the steel mills and keep them in operation. The president based his authority for doing so on Article II of the Constitution and on his power as commander in chief of the armed forces. A district court granted the request of the steel companies for a temporary injunction against the president’s order, the Court of Appeals agreed, and the secretary of commerce appealed to the Supreme Court.

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The President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself. There is no statute that expressly authorizes the President to take possession of property as he did here. Nor is there any act of Congress to which our attention has been directed from which such a power can fairly be implied. Indeed, we do not understand the Government to rely on statutory authorization for this seizure
Moreover, the use of the seizure technique to solve labor disputes in order to prevent work stoppages was not only unauthorized by any congressional enactment; prior to this controversy, Congress had refused to adopt that method of settling labor disputes. When the Taft-Hartley Act was under consideration in 1947, Congress rejected an amendment which would have authorized such governmental seizures in cases of emergency. Apparently it was thought that the technique of seizure, like that of compulsory arbitration, would interfere with the process of collective bargaining. * * *
The order cannot properly be sustained as an exercise of the President’s military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Government attempts to do so by citing a number of cases upholding broad powers in military commanders engaged in day-to-day fighting in a theater of war. Such cases need not concern us here. Even though “theater of war” be an expanding concept, we cannot with faithfulness to our constitutional system hold that the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has the ultimate power as such to take possession of private property in order to keep labor disputes from stopping production. This is a job for the Nation’s lawmakers, not for its military authorities.
Nor can the seizure order be sustained because of the several constitutional provisions that grant executive power to the President. In the framework of our Constitution, the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker. The Constitution limits his functions in the lawmaking process to the recommending of laws he thinks wise and the vetoing of laws he thinks bad. And the Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute. The first section of the first article says that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States. * * * The power of Congress to adopt such public policies as those proclaimed by the order is beyond question. It can authorize the taking of private property for public use. It can make laws regulating the relationships between employers and employees, prescribing rules designed to settle labor disputes, and fixing wages and working conditions in certain fields of our economy. The Constitution did not subject this law-making power of Congress to presidential or military supervision or control. * * * The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.

When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate. In these circumstances, and in these only, may he be said (for what it may be worth), to personify the federal sovereignty. If his act is held unconstitutional under these circumstances, it usually means that the Federal Government as an undivided whole lacks power. A seizure executed by the President pursuant to an Act of Congress would be supported by the strongest of presumptions and the widest latitude of judicial interpretation, and the burden of persuasion would rest heavily upon any who might attack it.
When the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain. Therefore, congressional inertia, indifference or quiescence may sometimes, at least as a practical matter, enable, if not invite, measures on independent presidential responsibility. In this area, any actual test of power is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law.
When the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb, for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter. Courts can sustain exclusive Presidential control in such a case only by disabling the Congress from acting upon the subject. Presidential claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution, for what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system. * * *
In view of the ease, expedition and safely with which Congress can grant and has granted large emergency powers, certainly ample to embrace this crisis, I am quite unimpressed with the argument that we should affirm possession of them without statute. Such power either has no beginning or it has no end. If it exists, it need submit to no legal restraint. I am not alarmed that it would plunge us straightway into dictatorship, but it is at least a step in that wrong direction.

Decision. The lower court’s injunction against the President’s action was upheld. The President was not acting pursuant to an act of Congress, nor could the seizure of private property during wartime be justified on the basis of his inherent power as President or as Commander in Chief.

Comment. The concurring opinion by Justice Jackson is one of the most frequently cited opinions in American constitutional history regarding presidential powers. Justice Robert Jackson was America’s chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. Where, as in this case, the President’s action is in contradiction to acts of Congress, the President’s power is at its “lowest ebb.”

Case Questions

1. On what grounds did Justice Black reject President Truman’s seizure order?

2. Explain Justice Jackson’s tripartite classification of presidential power. How did he classify President Truman’s action in seizing the steel mills, and why?

3. Considering that the United States was engaged in a brutal war in Korea, and that steel was needed for the war effort, do you agree with this decision (three justices dissented)? If the Court had permitted the seizure of a private business in this case, could that have led to a “slippery slope” and ultimately future seizures on somewhat lesser grounds?

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