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Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer, 343 US 579 (1952)


The Youngstown case (more commonly known as the Steel Seizure Case) checked President Truman's power because he had overreached the authority granted the President in Article II of the Constitution, and had acted without consent of Congress when he attempted to seize control of the nation's steel industry during the Korean War.


Truman issued Executive Order 10340 in an attempt to avert a United Steel Workers' strike scheduled to begin on April 9, 1952, by ordering the Secretary of Commerce to take control of the steel industry. In the President's opinion, a strike would disrupt production of war supplies, jeopardizing national defense. He believed he was justified in using "emergency war powers" without consulting Congress.

There were less drastic options available to President Truman that could have accomplished the same goal. For example, he could have asked the US Attorney General to file an injunction against the strike under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which had a provision for protecting industry in the interest of national safety.

Sec. 208. [Sec. 178. Injunctions during national emergency]

(a) [Petition to district court by Attorney General on direction of

President] Upon receiving a report from a board of inquiry the

President may direct the Attorney General to petition any district court

of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties to enjoin such

strike or lockout or the continuing thereof, and if the court finds that

such threatened or actual strike or lockout--

(i) affects an entire industry or a substantial part thereof engaged

in trade, commerce, transportation, transmission, or communication

among the several States or with foreign nations, or engaged in the

production of goods for commerce; and

(ii) if permitted to occur or to continue, will imperil the national

health or safety, it shall have jurisdiction to enjoin any such strike

or lockout, or the continuing thereof, and to make such other orders

as may be appropriate.

According to Maeva Marcus in her book, Truman and the steel seizure case: the limits of presidential power, the President and his White House staff discussed this option and rejected it because of the uncertainty that a District Court would grant an injunction. Truman also believed Taft-Hartley to be a poor solution because the Act put pressure on the unions to settle, while Truman believed the onus should be on the steel industry, which he believed was engaging in unfair labor practices.

The steel industry filed for an injunction against the seizure in US District Court for the District of Columbia, which was granted by a Judge Pine on April 30, 1952, and then stayed by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on May 1.

With both lower court decisions favoring the steel industry, the Department of Justice quickly drew up a petition for a writ of certiorari and hand-delivered it to the Clerk of Court of the US Supreme Court by mid-morning May 2. Much to the DOJ's surprise, the steel industry had preemptively petitioned the Court earlier that morning - an unusual, but allowable, strategy for the winning party at the lower court level. Filing the first petition gave the steel industry the advantage of choosing to open and close oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari by a vote of 7-2, and assigned the case for argument on Monday, May 12. Meanwhile, the Court continued the Circuit Court's stay, with the stipulation that the United States "take no action to change any term or condition of employment while this stay is in effect unless such change is mutually agreed on by the steel companies...and the bargaining representatives of the employees."

In the DOJ's brief, the questions before the Court were whether the President had the constitutional authority to seize the steel mills in order to avert a nationwide strike; whether the District Court had erred by ruling on constitutional issues in a motion for preliminary injunction; and whether granting the injunctive relief was a proper remedy in this case.

Supreme Court Decision

In a 6-3 decision issued June 2, 1952, Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court, which clearly expressed the Court's belief that President Truman had no authority and no statutory basis for attempting to seize the industry:

"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.

"There are two statutes which do authorize the President to take both personal and real property under certain conditions. However, the Government admits that these conditions were not met and that the President's order was not rooted in either of the statutes. The Government refers to the seizure provisions of one of these statutes (§ 201(b) of the Defense Production Act) as 'much too cumbersome, involved, and time-consuming for the crisis which was at hand.'"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.

Consequently, the plan Congress adopted in that Act did not provide for seizure under any circumstances. Instead, the plan sought to bring about settlements by use of the customary devices of mediation, conciliation, investigation by boards of inquiry, and public reports. In some instances temporary injunctions were authorized to provide cooling-off periods. All this failing, unions were left free to strike after a secret vote by employees as to whether they wished to accept their employers' final settlement offer."It is clear that if the President had authority to issue the order he did, it must be found in some provisions of the Constitution. And it is not claimed that express constitutional language grants this power to the President. The contention is that presidential power should be implied from the aggregate of his powers under the Constitution. Particular reliance is placed on provisions in Article II which say that 'the executive Power shall be vested in a President * * *'; that 'he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed'; and that he 'shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.'"


"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 * * *.' After granting many powers to the Congress, Article I goes on to provide that Congress may 'make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.'"


"The Founders of this Nation entrusted the law making power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times. It would do no good to recall the historical events, the fears of power and the hopes for freedom that lay behind their choice. Such a review would but confirm our holding that this seizure order cannot stand."The judgment of the District Court is affirmed."

Justice Robert Jackson's Concurring Opinion

Five justices wrote concurring opinions in the Steel Seizure Case. Justice Robert Jackson's is the one most often cited as setting the standard for appropriate separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches. Jackson's approach was more flexible with regard to interpreting some of the Constitution's vague language, and divided Presidential authority relative to Congress into three categories:

"While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity. Presidential powers are not fixed but fluctuate, depending upon their disjunction or conjunction with those of Congress. We may well begin by a somewhat over-simplified grouping of practical situations in which a President may doubt, or others may challenge, his powers, and by distinguishing roughly the legal consequences of this factor of relativity."

"1. 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...."

"2. 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...."

"3. 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."


It is possible to equivocate with the conclusion that the Court's decision succeeded only in checking the President's power, drawing a line in the sand over which he could not cross, although it did. But Justice Jackson's concurring opinion (which is cited more often than the official Court opinion), introduces some shades of gray into an otherwise black and white issue, that allows some flexibility in the President's role.

While Originalists and Textualists may argue that the Constitution has a fixed and definite meaning, and that the only powers each branch can exercise are those enumerated in their respective Articles, Justice Jackson, whose interpretation tends more toward Structuralism, notes that,

"I did not suppose, and I am not persuaded, that history leaves it open to question, at least in the courts, that the executive branch, like the Federal Government as a whole, possesses only delegated powers. The purpose of the Constitution was not only to grant power, but to keep it from getting out of hand. However, because the President does not enjoy unmentioned powers does not mean that the mentioned ones should be narrowed by a niggardly construction. Some clauses could be made almost unworkable, as well as immutable, by refusal to indulge some latitude of interpretation for changing times. I have heretofore, and do now, give to the enumerated powers the scope and elasticity afforded by what seem to be reasonable practical implications instead of the rigidity dictated by a doctrinaire textualism."

To read the the Supreme Court's opinions in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer, see Related Links, below.

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Q: How did the US Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer 1952 effect the growth of Presidential power?
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