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The Supreme Court Rejects President Truman's Seizure of the Steel Mills
Judicial power was dramatically demonstrated in 1952 when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the President of the United States from seizing a vital defense industry to prevent a strike that could damage the national interest. U.S. combat troops were fighting in Korea when federal labor mediation broke down between the unions and the steel industry, and the unions called a nationwide steel strike. President Harry S. Truman ordered his secretary of commerce to seize and operate the nation’s steel mills. No law existed that authorized the President to take such an action, but President Truman asserted that responding to a wartime emergency was an “inherent power” of the Presidency necessary to promote the general welfare, as well as his responsibility as commander in chief of the armed forces. The steel companies sued the government on the ground that the President lacked the authority to take over their industry.

The Supreme Court surprised the President with its ruling in Youngstown Sheet & Tool Company v. Sawyer (1952), when it concluded that the President could not seize the steel mills. By acting without congressional authority, Truman had violated the separation of powers, regardless of the emergency. Moreover, the Court ruled that a President’s war powers could not be applied to domestic policies.

Although he disagreed with the ruling—and always insisted that a President must act in a national emergency— President Truman complied with the Court’s ruling. The steel seizure case confirmed that judicial power extended even to war powers, and even during a war.