Supreme Court Decision
Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer
The Youngstown case tested the power of the President to seize private property in the purported national interest, even without the consent of Congress. The Court's decision established some restraints on claims of executive power.
As the Korean War -- politically termed a "police action" -- raged in 1952, the American steel industry faced a potential strike, as it was unable to reach a contract agreement with its workers. Concerned that such a development could adversely affect the war effort, President Harry S Truman instructed his Secretary of Commerce to seize the nation's steel mills. The respective company CEO's were ordered to continue to operate their businesses in accordance with government instructions.
As chief executive and commander-in-chief, the president was relying upon his Article II powers, and the ample precedents in American executive history for wartime seizures. Immediately after issuing the order, Truman advised Congress, which took no action.
For their part, the steel companies argued that the Labor Management Relations (Taft-Hartley) Act of 1947, while giving Congress power to intervene when collective bargaining failed, had specifically rejected the concept of seizure.
Writing for the majority in overturning the president's actions, Justice Hugo Black pointed out that Congress could have authorized the seizure had it desired. In using an Executive Order to do so in the absence of specific authorization, the President was improperly acting in the place of Congress, contrary to the constitutional separation of powers.
In a very pregnant point, Justice William O. Douglas added that Congress had the power to authorize compensation for the seizure [for which a case could be easily made under the Fifth Amendment], while the President did not.
Justice Robert Jackson concurred with his evaluation of presidential power: Strongest with consent of Congress, weakest with its prohibition. Uncertain when Congress is silent, as in this case. Even during a national emergency, added Justice Tom C. Clark, the presidential powers were subject to specific limits placed upon them by Congress -- and that body had clearly ruled out seizure in creating Taft-Hartley.
The dissent in this case leaned towards the need of the president to act. They saw the demands of the war and the threat of the strike as constitutional justification for the president's action.
The balance between presidential and congressional power suggested by this case makes common sense -- though, as in any relationship or management structure, there needs to be a tie-breaker. In time of war, one would assume that would lie with the commander-in-chief. In this case, though, there was no give-and-take between the two branches prior to the execution of the Executive Order, and there was an implied mandate by Congress against the contemplated action.
The logic of this decision has been used since to overcome excessive presidential power in areas such as impoundment, executive privilege, surveillance and national security.
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Other decisions pertaining to Emergency Powers:
Bass v. Tingy [4 U.S. 37 (1904)] Ellsworth Court
Milligan, Ex Parte [71 U.S. 2 (1866)] Chase Court
Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States [295 U.S. 495 (1935)] Hughes Court
Schenck v. United States [249 U.S. 47 (1919)] White Court