Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

views updated May 18 2018


In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 72 S. Ct. 863, 96 L. Ed. 1153 (1952), the Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of an executive order directing the secretary of commerce to seize possession of the nation's steel mills during a labor dispute and keep them operating while hostilities continued in the korean war. Also known as the Steel Seizure Case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube stands for the proposition that the executive branch has no constitutional authority to seize possession of private property, even if it is for public use during times of national emergency because such authority is vested in the lawmaking powers of Congress.

The case arose from a labor dispute between American steel companies and their employees over the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that was under negotiation in 1951. Employees wanted higher wages, but management protested that such increases could only be met through drastic price hikes. President harry s. truman opposed further price hikes because the economy was already suffering from inflation. However, Truman feared that any disruption in domestic steel production would impede the American war effort in Korea, which was entering its second year, and thus imperil the safety of U.S. military troops.

When negotiations between labor and management reached an impasse, the employees' representative, United Steelworkers of America, C.I.O., announced its intention to commence a nationwide strike on April 12, 1952, at 12:01 a.m. A few hours before the strike was to begin, Truman issued Executive Order 10340, which commanded the secretary of commerce, Charles Sawyer, to seize most of the nation's steel mills and keep them running.

In carrying out this order, the secretary directed the presidents of the seized steel companies to serve as operating managers for the U.S. government. Until directed otherwise, each president was to operate his plant in accordance with the rules and regulations prescribed by the secretary. While obeying these orders under protest, the steel companies filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking declaratory relief to invalidate the executive order and injunctive relief to restrain its enforcement.

On April 30, 1952, the district court issued a preliminary injunction immediately restraining the secretary of commerce from continuing the seizure and possession of the steel mills. On that same day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stayed the district court's order on the grounds that resolution of such an issue is more appropriate for the U.S. Supreme Court. Granting certiorari three days later, the Supreme Court decided the case on June 12, 1952.

In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated the executive order and affirmed the district court's judgment. Justice hugo black delivered the opinion of the Court. Truman's power to issue the order, the Court said, derives, if at all, from an act of Congress or from the U.S. Constitution. There are no other sources for presidential power, the Court wrote.

The Court found that Truman had not acted pursuant to congressional authority. Prior to issuing the order, Truman had given Congress formal notice of the impending seizure. However, neither house responded. The Court also observed that Congress had considered amending the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, 61 Stat. 136, popularly known as the taft-hartley act, to include a provision authorizing the seizure of steel mills in times of national crisis. Yet Congress rejected the idea. No other federal statutory authority existed, the Court stressed, from which presidential power to seize a private business could be fairly implied.

The Court next turned to the president's constitutional powers. Article II of the Constitution delegates certain enumerated powers to the executive branch. Unlike Article I, which gives Congress a broad grant of authority to make all laws that are "necessary and proper" in exercising its legislative function, Article II limits the authority of the executive branch to narrowly specified powers.

Consistent with Article II, the Court said, a president may recommend the enactment of a particular bill, veto objectionable legislation, and "faithfully execute" laws that have been passed by both houses of Congress. As commander in chief, the president of the United States is vested with ultimate responsibility for the nation's armed forces. However, the Court emphasized, the office of the president has no constitutional authority outside the language contained within the four corners of the Constitution.

Lawyers for the executive branch had argued that the presidency carries with it certain inherent powers that may be reasonably inferred from the express provisions of the Constitution. During times of national emergency, the government's lawyers argued, the president may exercise these inherent powers without violating the Constitution. Since wartime is traditionally considered a time of national emergency, the president's seizure of the steel mills represented a legitimate exercise of his inherent powers.

The Supreme Court disagreed with these arguments. Conceding that a strike could threaten national security by curtailing the production of armaments, the Court said that the commander in chief's authority to prosecute a foreign war does not empower him to seize private property in an effort to resolve a domestic labor dispute. "This is a job for the Nation's lawmakers," Justice Black wrote, "not for its military authorities." Black reminded the executive branch that only Congress can authorize the taking of private property for public use under the eminent domain clause of the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Justices felix frankfurter, william o. douglas, harold burton, tom clark, and robert jackson each wrote a concurring opinion. Frankfurter suggested that the powers expressly enumerated in Article II may be supplemented by long-standing executive practice, though he said there was no historical precedent for Truman's action in this case. With the exception of Jackson, the other concurring justices elaborated on points made by Justice Black in the Court's opinion.

Jackson's concurring opinion has garnered much attention from constitutional scholars and is the most frequently cited opinion in Youngstown Sheet & Tube. Jackson articulated an overarching theory of federal executive power in the United States. According to Jackson, there are three tiers of presidential authority. When a president acts in conjunction with Congress, Jackson wrote, executive power is at its zenith because the president may rely on his own authority plus that of the legislative branch. When a president acts contrary to congressional will, executive power is at its nadir because the president must rely solely on his expressly delegated authority minus that of the legislative branch. And when a president acts in an area where Congress has been silent, executive power is uncertain and may fluctuate depending on the circumstances.

Justice fred vinson dissented, joined by Justices stanley reed and sherman minton. The dissent underscored the importance of steel production to the military effort in Korea. During the two years of hostilities in Southeast Asia, the dissent noted, Congress directed the president to secure the nation's defenses, sometimes doing so in a very general and open-ended manner. Thus, the dissent argued, Truman had received some authority from Congress to take action in the name of national defense and the public interest.

The dissent also relied on history, pointing out that james madison advocated instilling the executive branch with initiative and vigor. President abraham lincoln, the dissent continued, showed initiative during the Civil War by ordering the seizure of all rail and telegraph lines leading to Washington, D.C., even though he lacked congressional approval. In this light, the dissent concluded, Truman's seizure of the steel mills was supported by historical precedent.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube is considered a seminal case regarding the separation of powers among the coordinate branches of the federal government. The U.S. Constitution separates the powers of the federal government among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The constitutional authority of each branch is limited by the express language of the Constitution and by the powers delegated to the coordinate branches.

Article I gives Congress the power to make the law. Article II gives the president the power to execute or implement the law, while Article III gives the federal judiciary the power to interpret and apply the law. The popular notion of "checks and balances" rests upon this conception of the separation of powers.

Despite the clear separation of constitutional powers, presidents, members of Congress, judges, and laypeople have debated whether the executive branch is vested with additional inherent or implied powers. On one side of the debate are those who believe the presidency enjoys a residue of autocratic power. According to these individuals, such power may be exercised by the president in times of national emergency and is limited only by the president's good judgment. On the other side of the debate are those who believe the executive branch may not exercise any power that is not explicitly granted by the federal Constitution or federal statute.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube went a long way toward settling this debate. Occasionally presidents still assert claims of executive privilege and executive immunity. In some instances federal courts recognize such claims, but oftentimes they do not. President richard m. nixon unsuccessfully attempted to insulate tape recordings made at the White House during the watergate political scandal from a federal investigation, a notable example of a failed assertion of executive immunity (united states v. nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 [1974]). In many such cases, Youngstown Sheet & Tube has provided the backdrop for judicial analysis of executive authority under constitutional law.

further readings

Brownell, Roy E., II. 2000. "The Coexistence of United States v. Curtiss-Wright and Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer in National Security Jurisprudence." Journal of Law & Politics 16 (winter).

Bryant, A. Christopher, and Carl Tobias. 2002. "Youngstown Revisited." Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 29 (spring).

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1998. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale.

Rozell, Mark J. 2002. Executive Privilege: Presidential Power, Secrecy, and Accountability. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.


Executive Order; Preliminary Injunction; Strike.

About this article

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

All Sources -
Updated Oct 14 2016 About content Print Topic