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Law School Site - Case Brief


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


During the Korean War, President Truman issued an executive order directing Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize and operate most of the nation's steel mills. The president did this in order to stop an expected strike by the United Steelworkers of America, and avert the effects of the strike which the President felt would jeopardize national defense.


Dose the President have the constitutional authority to seize and operate the steel mills?


The Court, by a 6-to-3, decision held that the Constitution does not grant the President the authority take possession of private property. The Court also held that the President's military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces did not extend to labor disputes. The Court argued that "the President's power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker."

Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority. Black took, as he often did, an absolutist view, holding that the President had no power to act except in those cases expressly or implicitly authorized by the Constitution or an act of Congress.

Concurring opinions:

William O. Douglas

Douglas took a similarly absolutist approach to the President's assertion of inherent power to cope with a national emergency. He characterized the seizure as a quintessentially legislative act that the Constitution entrusted to the Congress.

Felix Frankfurter

Frankfurter avoided the sweeping condemnation of the administration's claims that Black and Douglas had offered. While he would not rule out the possibility that the President might acquire the power to take certain actions by a long course of conduct unobjected to by Congress, he found the statutory history persuasive evidence that Congress had not acquiesced, much less authorized seizure of private property in the absence of a formal declaration of war.

Robert H. Jackson

Jackson's opinion took a similarly flexible approach to the issue, eschewing any fixed boundaries between Congress' and the President's power. Jackson divided Presidential authority vis a vis Congress into three categories, ranked in descending order of legitimacy: (1) those cases in which the President was acting with express or implied authority from Congress, (2) cases in which Congress had thus far been silent, and (3) cases in which the President was defying congressional orders. He classified this case as falling within the third category.

Harold Hitz Burton

Burton likewise held that Congress, not the President, possessed the power to act in emergencies because it had exclusive power to pass legislation. He relied on the language and legislative history of the Taft-Hartley Act to find that Congress had not authorized seizure of plants involved in a labor dispute without express legislative authorization. He hedged, however, on whether the President might, in more extreme circumstances, have authority to act.

Tom Campbell Clark

Justice Clark, who had been Truman's Attorney General for four years before Truman appointed him to the Court, rejected Black's and Douglas' absolutist approach, holding that the President did have some inherent power to act in the case of grave and imperative national emergencies. Clark refused, however, to define the boundaries of that power; in his view the fact that Congress had provided in the Taft-Hartley Act, the Selective Service Act or the Defense Production Act for procedures that the executive could have used, ended the discussion by barring the President from relying on any inherent powers he might otherwise have to choose a solution other than the ones that Congress had allowed.

 Dissenting opinion:

Chief Justice Vinson dissented; Justices Reed and Minton joined him. His opinion dwelled at some length on the history of presidential seizures; in the oral presentation of his opinion he went out of his way to make a sarcastic reference to the contrary positions that Jackson and Clark had taken when they were the Attorneys General for Roosevelt and Truman, respectively. Rejecting the view that Congress had limited the executive's authority to seize property in this case by providing for different procedures in the legislation it had enacted, Vinson's opinion nonetheless appeared to recognize Congress' primacy in enacting legislation, justifying the seizure in this case as necessary to preserve the status quo so that Congress could act in the future, but mocking arguments based on the Constitution's provision allowing the President to recommend legislation, rather than to make it himself, as "the messenger-boy concept of the Office".

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