Youngstown Sheet & Tube CO. v. Sawyer 343 U.S. 579 (1952)

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In a landmark restriction on presidential power, the Supreme Court in 1952 held invalid President harry s. truman's seizure of the steel mills. Justice hugo l. black, joined by five other Justices, delivered the opinion of the Court. Chief Justice fred m. vinson, dissenting with Justices stanley f. reed and sherman minton, believed that military and economic emergencies justified Truman's action.

Each of the five concurring Justices wrote separate opinions, advancing different views of the President's emergency power. Only Justices Black and william o. douglas insisted on specific constitutional or statutory authority to support presidential seizure of private property. Assigning the lawmaking function exclusively to Congress, they allowed the President a role only in recommending or vetoing laws. On existing precedent, this concept of the separation of powers doctrine was far too rigid. Previous Presidents had engaged directly in the lawmaking function without express constitutional or statutory authority, often with the acquiescence and even blessing of Congress and the courts.

The other four concurring Justices (felix frankfurter, robert h. jackson, harold burton, and tom c. clark) did not draw such a strict line between the executive and legislative branches, nor did they try to delimit the President's authority to act in future emergencies. Frankfurter thought it inadvisable to attempt a comprehensive definition of presidential power, based on abstract principles, without admitting powers that had evolved by custom: a "systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of the Congress and never before questioned … may be treated as a gloss on "executive Power." Burton withheld opinion on the President's constitutional power when facing an "imminent invasion or threatened attack," while Clark agreed that the Constitution gave the President extensive authority in time of grave and imperative national emergency.

Jackson identified three categories of presidential power, ranging from actions based on express or implied congressional authorization (putting executive authority at its maximum) to executive measures that were incompatible with congressional policy (reducing presidential power to its lowest ebb). In between lay a "zone of twilight" in which President and Congress shared authority. Jackson said that congressional inertia, indifference, or acquiescence might enable, if not invite, independent presidential action. He further argued that the enumerated powers of the President required "scope and elasticity" and said he would "indulge the widest latitude of interpretation" when presidential powers were turned against the outside world for the security of the United States.

Considering the four concurrences and three dissents, the Steel Seizure Case was far from a repudiation of the inherent power doctrine. Nevertheless, a majority of the Court did reach agreement on important principles: presidential actions, including those of an "emergency" nature, are subject to judicial review; the courts may enjoin executive officers from carrying out presidential orders that conflict with statutory policy or the Constitution; and independent presidential powers in domestic affairs are especially vulnerable to judicial scrutiny when Congress has adopted a contrary statutory policy. The Steel Seizure Case has supplied the Supreme Court with an important precedent for curbing subsequent exercises of presidential power in areas such as the Pentagon Papers case (new york times v. united states, 1971), electronic surveillance, impoundment, and executive privilege.

Louis Fisher

(see also: Executive Order 10340; Steel Seizure Controversy.)


Marcus, Maeva 1977 Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power. New York: Columbia University Press.

Westin, Alan F. 1958 The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Case. New York: Macmillan.

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Youngstown Sheet & Tube CO. v. Sawyer 343 U.S. 579 (1952)

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