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Chapter 12: A Decision to Limit Presidential Power

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)

Separation of powers among three branches of government is a central principle in the U.S. Constitution. According to Articles 1, 2, and 3, the Congress makes laws, the President as chief executive enforces them, and the federal judges interpret them in specific cases. The separation of powers is neither rigid nor comprehensive, because the Constitution includes a system of checks and balances that provides each branch of government with ways to limit the powers of the others. Further, the Constitution requires each branch to cooperate with the others to carry out certain duties. The system of separated powers with checks and balances prevents one branch from accumulating so much power that it can dominate the others and rule tyrannically.

In designing the nation’s new government, James Madison emphasized the separation of powers as a fundamental characteristic of a limited and free government. In the forty-seventh paper of The Federalist, he wrote, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

At times, federal government leaders and other citizens have clashed about whether a particular action by Congress or the President so exceeds the proper limits set in the Constitution that it tilts the powers in government toward tyranny. For example, President Harry S. Truman tested the limits of Presidential power when he ordered the federal government to take control of the nation’s steel mills during a wartime crisis in 1952. Was President Truman’s use of executive power constitutional? Did it threaten to upset the balance of powers among the three branches of government as established by the Constitution? Was it an assault on the very idea of a constitutionally limited and free government? Or was it a necessary exercise of executive power on behalf of national security during wartime? As usual, when political conflicts in American government raise basic constitutional issues, the judiciary becomes the arbiter. So it happened in regard to Truman’s extraordinary exercise of Presidential power, which raised issues settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

  • 343 U.S. 579 (1952)
  • Decided: June 2, 1952
  • Vote: 6–3
  • Opinion of the Court: Hugo L. Black
  • Concurring opinions: Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, and Tom Clark
  • Dissenting opinion: Fred M. Vinson (Stanley F. Reed and Sherman Minton)

This issue about the latitude or limits of Presidential power arose within the context of the Korean War, which started in the summer of 1950 when military forces of North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations condemned the invasion and called upon its members to assist South Korea. President Truman responded by committing American forces to the conflict without seeking a formal declaration of war by Congress. The North Koreans received military supplies and encouragement from the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union, and near the end of 1950, the Chinese Army entered the war against the United States and its allies.

During the spring of 1952, President Truman encountered a problem on the home front that endangered the American military engagement in Korea. Steelworkers throughout the United States were on the verge of a strike against their employers, owners of the big steel mills, whose products were critical to the military campaign in Korea. President Truman feared that a long work stoppage would deprive front-line soldiers of weapons and ammunition needed for victory in Korea.

On April 8, 1952, a few hours before the strike was slated to begin, the President issued Executive Order 10340, which directed Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to temporarily take control of the nation’s steel mills on behalf of the federal government and keep them operational. President Truman officially informed Congress of his action, but he received no response.

Secretary Sawyer told the steel mill managers that they would report to him during this period of national emergency, and he ordered them to maintain normal production schedules. The steel company owners reluctantly accepted President Truman’s executive order, but they filed suit in a federal district court to halt the federal government’s seizure and management of their property.

Taking temporary control of the steel mills was not the only alternative available to President Truman. He had another way to deal with the strike but chose not to use it.

In 1947, Congress had enacted a labor-management relations statute, the Taft-Hartley Act, which provided the President with authority to obtain a court order to delay a strike for eighty days. Had the President invoked this “cooling off ” period, the steelworkers’ union and the mill owners would have had ample time to negotiate and attempt to settle their differences. However, Truman had publicly pledged never to use the Taft-Hartley Act, because he thought it provided unfair advantages to employers in their dealings with labor unions. The President had vetoed this law, but Congress had overridden his veto. He was determined not to use legislation that he despised to settle the dispute between steelworkers and steel mill owners.

The President’s sympathies in this labor-management conflict were entirely with the steelworkers’ union. In his opinion, the blame for the strike lay entirely with the employers. He pointed out that the union had already postponed the strike four times in an effort to reach a settlement. Government arbitrators had recommended a compromise, which the union had accepted. The steel company owners, however, had rejected these recommendations, which included significant increases in the workers’ wages, even though in 1951 the companies had earned their greatest profits in more than thirty years. The President believed the steel company owners were using the national crisis of the Korean War to force the steelworkers to accept lower wages than they deserved.

President Truman decided to seize the steel mills to prevent the workers from walking away from their jobs in a strike against the owners, because he strongly believed the owners were to blame for this problem. The President did not base his action on statutory authority provided by Congress. Rather, he claimed inherent constitutional powers of the President as justification for his Executive Order 10340. The steel company owners, however, believed the President’s action against them violated the Constitution’s separation of powers principle and quickly sought relief in the federal district court of Washington, D.C. On April 29, Judge David A. Pine issued an injunction against the federal government and ordered the return of the steel mills to the owners. Secretary Sawyer countered with a plea to the court of appeals, which stayed, or stopped, Judge Pine’s injunction. Then the steel companies appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which very quickly accepted the case in order to settle a critical issue in a time of national crisis.

The issues in the case pertained directly to the separation of powers among three branches of government, and the lawyers for both sides framed their arguments around this essential principle of the Constitution. During oral arguments before the Court, lawyers for the steel companies emphasized that Congress had not authorized President Truman’s executive order. No law had been enacted to empower the President to seize and operate the steel mills. Thus, the President was, in effect, making law—a power reserved to Congress by Article 1 of the Constitution which says, “All Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Furthermore, they argued that there was no inherent constitutional power that authorized the President’s action in response to a national emergency.

They recognized the existence of a wartime crisis but argued that the wrong branch of government had stepped forward in response. According to the Constitution, they argued, only Congress could authorize the kind of action taken by the President in this case. In the absence of congressional endorsement, the President had overstepped the constitutional limits of his power.

Counsel for the federal government argued that the President’s inherent power under Article 2 of the Constitution gave him authority to maintain production of steel needed for military purposes in the Korean War. Article 2 says “The executive power should be vested in a President of the United States of America,” which requires action necessary to defend the nation against domestic and foreign enemies. Furthermore, they said that the President’s power as commander in chief allowed him to take actions necessary to protect the lives of American troops. This executive power included ensuring a steady flow of steel to produce weapons and ammunition for the war effort.

President Truman lost the argument at the Supreme Court, which by a 6–3 vote ruled against him. The Court’s majority decided that the President’s executive order authorizing seizure of the steel mills was an unconstitutional exercise of power. Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black said, “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 powers can fairly be implied.” Further, Black argued that the President’s order could not be justified by any grant of power in the Constitution. He held that the President did not have inherent power, derived from Article 2 of the Constitution, to seize private property, even temporarily during a national emergency.

Justice Black noted that in writing the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, Congress had rejected the idea that a President could seize a private business in order to forestall a strike by unionized employees. Thus, by his executive order the President had attempted to make a law, which the Constitution does not permit him to do. “The Founders of this Nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times,” wrote Black. “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.” Thus, the Court affirmed the decision of the federal district court to stop the President’s takeover of the steel mills.

Concurring opinions by Justices Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, and Harold H. Burton all stressed that only Congress could constitutionally authorize a seizure of the steel mills during a national crisis through its power to legislate. Justice Douglas said he was shocked by the “legislative nature of the action taken by the President.” Justice Jackson’s concurring opinion emphasized the connection of executive power to congressional approval in all matters where there is no explicit grant of power to the President from the Constitution. Jackson said that the executive’s power is greatest when the President acts with the authorization of Congress. When the President acts against the explicit will of Congress, however, his authority is least likely to be sustained. Justice Jackson explained the fundamental importance of the separation of powers principle as a bulwark against despotism: “With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and the law be made by parliamentary deliberations.”

Justice Tom Clark concurred in the Court’s decision to declare unconstitutional the President’s seizure of the steel mills. However, he disagreed with Justice Black’s opinion in support of the Court’s decision because it seemed to deny any extraordinary power for the President in a national emergency. Clark wrote that “such a grant may well be necessary to the very existence of the Constitution.”

Three justices, all appointed to the Court by President Truman, dissented. The dissenting opinion was written by Chief Justice Fred Vinson and joined by Justices Stanley Reed and Sherman Minton. Vinson argued that during a grave national crisis, such as the Korean War, the Constitution allowed the President to exercise unusual powers. The Chief Justice wrote, “Those who suggest that this is a case involving extraordinary powers should be mindful that these are extraordinary times.” He added that Truman’s actions followed the tradition of taking bold actions during a time of crisis established by other Presidents: Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson during World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II.

President Truman promptly returned control of the steel mills to their owners, in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision. But he continued to strongly disagree with it and to praise Chief Justice Vinson’s dissent. Later, in his Memoirs, Truman wrote, “I would, of course, never conceal the fact that the Supreme Court’s decision, announced on June 2 [1952] was a deep disappointment to me. I think Chief Justice Vinson’s dissenting opinion hit the nail right on the head, and I am sure that someday his view will come to be recognized as the correct one.”

The President’s immediate distress about the Court’s opinion in the “steel seizure” case was somewhat eased by Justice Hugo Black’s display of gracious hospitality at his home. Sensing Truman’s severe disappointment at his opinion for the Court in the “steel seizure” decision, Justice Black invited the President and his fellow justices to a party. Black’s purpose was to reduce tensions arising from a decision that Truman considered a personal rebuke. In his autobiography, Justice William O. Douglas remembered, “Truman was gracious though a bit testy at the beginning of the evening. But after the bourbon and canapés were passed, he turned to Hugo [Black] and said, ‘Hugo, I don’t much care for your law but, by golly, this bourbon is good.’”

The President did not at all like the immediate effect of the Court’s decision upon the steel industry and its production of goods needed for the war in Korea. The steelworkers’ union called a strike against the steel mills. When it ended, after fifty-three days, the steel companies agreed to a contract within one cent of the settlement that had been recommended by the government arbitrators. True to his pledge, President Truman never used the Taft-Hartley Act to intervene in the negotiations between the union and the companies. But the President did insist that the strike caused shortages of ammunition for the soldiers fighting against their country’s enemies in Korea.

The Court’s decision in the Youngstown case clearly and enduringly established limits on the powers a President can derive from the Constitution during a national emergency. It demonstrated how the Supreme Court can act decisively to preserve the separation of powers principle in the Constitution, which defines the American political system. Finally, the “steel seizure’ decision became an important precedent in the Court’s subsequent decisions about the limits of Presidential power, such as its rulings in response to the Watergate crisis that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Separation of Powers and Where to Draw the Line

On May 16, 1952, the justices met privately in the conference room of the Supreme Court to discuss the issues in the Youngstown case. Like all Supreme Court conferences, no official record of the meeting was kept, and no formal report of the proceedings was issued. However, justices usually make notes for themselves to keep track of main points and important details of the discussions, which they often leave to a public repository, such as the Library of Congress or the National Archives, after their retirement or death. The notes that the participating justices made in the conference for the Youngstown case provide a sense of how they worked together to resolve a troubling issue about separation of powers under the Constitution. The bracketed comment in one instance is a note written by Justice Burton that pertains to the comment made by Justice Frankfurter. In the second instance, it is a note written by Justice Douglas about the comments of Justice Minton.

Chief Justice Fred Vinson: To take either position—that the president has either unlimited power or no power—is untenable. It runs in the face of the history of our government. At the one end, it is said that the president’s power is unlimited. But unlimited power is not urged here, and it could not be. On the other end, it is urged that the executive has no power of his own and that he must rely on an act of Congress. I don’t agree with that . . .

The president was called upon to seize. If he had not seized, the howls would have been greater than the howls we hear now. It was his duty, and he would have been derelict if he had not seized . . .

Hugo Black: The issue is whether the president can make laws. Here we have a labor dispute and lawmaking concerning it. That power, under the constitution, is in the Congress . . . [W]e do not,even in war, turn over legislative power to the president. We depend on the legislative branch as supreme in declaring the relations of citizens to property, and so forth . . .

I am afraid of any use of an “emergency” system. This is not a case of the president tearing down the house in order to stop a fire. The conditions are not that serious . . . This will take power from Congress. I affirm [the judgment of the federal district court that issued an injunction against the president’s order].

Stanley Reed: I am starting where Hugo concluded . . . I agree as to separation of powers. The question is where to draw the line. The lines between the powers of the three branches of government are not clear . . .

The president does not have unlimited power— only in an emergency. When is it a sufficient “emergency”? That is the issue . . .

There plainly is an emergency here. Steel is very important . . . I would leave the President in control . . .

Felix Frankfurter: I agree with Vinson that there is no unlimited power of the president, or of Congress. The doctrine of separation of powers is wound into this case.

[Harold H. Burton: Frankfurter refers to a long piece on separation of powers he wrote twenty-five years ago.] I agree with Black on this.

. . . President Truman cannot lump all of his powers together and thereby get authority . . .

The 1787 constitution was not meant for efficiency, but to preclude arbitrary power . . . I affirm.

William O. Douglas: Much has been said, but I am inclined to agree with Hugo. This is a legislative function. . . . [T]he President was not authorized to do that [seize the steel mills]. There should be no temporary seizure pending Congressional action—I would not agree with Felix on that. If Congress were to act, it would make the case moot. As of now, I affirm.

Robert H. Jackson: . . . This Court should not review whether there is an emergency! Stanley Reed might involve us in that. If the president declares an emergency, I will take the president’s judgment. The question of how the president deals with an emergency is different . . . The president is in an untenable situation.

(1) The government does claim inherent powers here!
(2) The president can throw the Constitution overboard—but we can’t . . . Whatever emergency is claimed does not support such drastic action [as seizing the steel mills]. I would affirm . . .

Harold H. Burton: The remedy at law is not adequate. The validity of the seizure should be passed on, and there is no reason to postpone a decision on the merits. This is a decision that requires policy-making and therefore it is for Congress to decide. Congress has the power to provide a remedy . . . I affirm.

Tom Clark: In any event, we should limit our decision to this case. I am unwilling to say that the President has no power to act. It is a useful power. Here, we have a situation that could have been averted by two statutory methods not involving seizure . . .

Sherman Minton: . . . I cannot believe that this government was constructed without a power of self-defense. There are not dark spots or power vacuums, where no one can act when the nation’s safety is imperiled.

The power of self-defense resides in Congress, and in the president, and in everyone in public life. We have an acute emergency hanging over the world. The president seized the mills in self-defense of the nation . . . Truman seized the plants because the defense of the country required it. That is not a legislative power—it is a defensive seizure. [William O. Douglas: Minton is very excited about this and pounds on the table.]

. . . The president gets his inherent power from the power to defend the nation in a day of peril. I reverse.