Law School Site - Case Brief
Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer 343
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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