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Youngstown Steel: The Supreme Court stands up to the President

November 16, 2015 by Joshua Waimberg


Note: Landmark Cases, a C-SPAN series on historic Supreme Court decisions—produced in cooperation with the National Constitution Center—continues on Monday, Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. ET. This week’s show features Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer.


Justice Robert Jackson


In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, also known as The Steel Seizure Case, the Supreme Court issued a stinging rebuff to President Truman by invalidating his seizure of the nation’s steel industry. In doing so, the Court limited the extent of the powers of the President of the United States under the Constitution.


The story of the Youngstown decision begins with war. In 1950, the United States became involved in the Korean War when North Korean forces invaded the Republic of Korea. President Truman, without a Congressional declaration of war, sent troops to South Korea. In doing so, President Truman became the first president to involve the United States in a major war without specific authorization from Congress.


At the time, President Truman was concerned with the output of the nation’s steel mills, as he believed that a strike would cause severe problems for the war effort and the country’s economy. Through the creation of the Wage Stabilization Board, and the passing of the Defense Production Act in 1950, the President attempted to give his administration enough power to establish price ceilings and to stabilize wages in the industry.


However, the President’s efforts to avoid labor issues did not succeed. At the time, the United Steelworkers of America were seeking a new contract that would increase wages for its members. The steel companies were determined not to increase wages, especially in light of the stabilized prices set by the government.


The Wage Stabilization Board attempted to have the workers and the industry agree on a compromise. It did not succeed. On April 4, 1952, the union announced that the strike was on, and the steel companies began to shut down their mills.


President Truman decided that he needed to force the still mills to stay open, in a similar fashion to how President Roosevelt had seized the aviation industry during World War II. He announced his decision in a radio address to the nation at 10:30pm on April 8, 1952.


In his executive order seizing the steel mills, President Truman warned that “American fighting men and fighting men of the United Nations are now engaged in deadly combat with the forces of aggression in Korea,” and that the materials needed for the war effort “are produced to a great extent in this country, and steel is an indispensable component of substantially all of such weapons and material.” President Truman warned that a work stoppage “would immediately jeopardize and imperil our national defense and the defense of those joined with us in resisting aggression, and would add to the continuing danger of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen engaged in combat in the field.”


Within an hour of the announcement, attorneys for the steel industry went to the home of Judge Bastian of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a temporary restraining order that would keep President Truman from carrying out his order.


The emergency hearing was held the next day before Judge Alexander Holtzoff. Judge Holtzoff, a Truman appointee, denied the motion for a temporary restraining order. The industry thereafter renewed their application for relief, and the case fell to Judge David A. Pine, who set a hearing for April 24, 1952. In their arguments, the government focused on the Constitutional question of whether the President could seize the steel mill under his powers, while the steel industry’s lawyers initially shied away from asking the Court to invalidate the President’s order, and instead asked for a middle ground from Judge Pine.


Judge Pine, however, was surprised by the limited nature of the steel industry’s arguments. Sensing this, the steel companies’ lawyers changed course and challenged the President’s authority to seize the industry’s property under the Constitution without any Congressional authority. Forced to respond to these arguments, the assistant Attorney General stated that the President’s power came from “Section 1, 2, and 3 of Article II of the Constitution and whatever inherent, implied or residual powers may flow therefrom.”


Presented with this absolutist view of Presidential power, Judge Pine issued an injunction that barred the administration from continuing to control the seized steel mills. The steel workers immediately began their strike, and the government appealed. Following a series of appeals, the case made its way to the Supreme Court.


The Court heard oral arguments on May 12, 1952. During the five hours of oral argument, John W. Davis, representing the steel industry, argued that the President did not have the power to make laws, and specifically, could not seize property without any authorization from Congress. Philip B. Perlman, the Solicitor General, argued the opposite on behalf of the government.


Justice Hugo Black delivered the majority opinion for the Court. Although it was the decision of the majority, it was clear that the Justices were split on a number of issues, as there five concurring opinions entered as well. Justice Black’s decision found for the steel industry, declaring that “[t]he 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…from which such a power can be fairly implied.” The Court also found that, “n the framework of our Constitution, the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.”


Amongst the concurring opinions, and even compared to the majority opinion, Justice Robert Jackson’s still stands out today as the most useful in assessing the extent of executive power. Justice Jackson rejected strict boundaries between Congressional and Presidential power, and instead divided Presidential authority into three categories of legitimacy. First, and most legitimate, were cases in which “[t]he President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress.” Second, is when Congress has been silent on the issue. And finally, “[w]hen the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb.”


President Truman was shocked by the decision. He immediately ordered the return of the steel mills to their owners, and the workers went on strike right away. The strike lasted more than 50 days. The effect of the Court’s decision limiting Presidential powers, however, has continued to impact executive decision-making throughout our nation’s history.


Joshua Waimberg is a legal fellow at the National Constitution Center.


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