If the recall of General MacArthur reaffirmed the tradition of civilian control over the military, the Steel Seizure case reminded the nation that, even in a war, the president could not act beyond the bounds of his constitutional powers.

In April 1952, President Truman ordered seizure of the nation's steel mills in order to forestall a strike which, he claimed, would have seriously harmed the nation during the Korean conflict. Although there was a law on the books, the Taft-Hartley Act, which gave the president the power to impose an eighty-day "cooling off" period when a strike was threatened, Truman refused to use that law, since he had opposed its passage in the first place. He also chose not to ask Congress for special legislation. Instead, he chose to take over control of the companies under his emergency war powers as commander-in-chief.

The steel companies did not deny that the government could take over their property in emergencies. Rather, they claimed that the wrong branch of the government had proceeded against them; in essence, they sued the president on behalf of Congress on the basis that the presidential action had violated the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers. Six members of the Court agreed, and Justice Hugo Black's majority opinion made a strong case for requiring the president, even in wartime, to abide by established rules.

From a constitutional standpoint, Youngstown remains one of the "great" modern cases, in that it helped to redress the balance of power among the three branches of government, a balance that had been severely distorted by the enormous growth of the executive branch and its powers first during the Depression, then during the war and the subsequent postwar search for global security.

For further reading: Maeva Marcus, Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power (1977); Alan F. Westin, The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Case: Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer; The Steel Seizure Decision (1958).


Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are asked to decide whether the President ... was acting within his constitutional power when he issued an order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate most of the Nation's steel mills. The mill owners argued that the President's order amounts to lawmaking, a legislative function which the Constitution has expressly confided to the Congress and not to the President. The Government's position is that the order was made on findings of the President that his action was necessary to avert a national catastrophe which would inevitably result from a stoppage of steel production, and that in meeting this grave emergency the President was acting within the aggregate of his constitutional powers as the Nation's Chief Executive and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States....

The 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 to which our attention has been directed from which such a power can fairly be implied. There are two statutes which do authorize the President to take both personal and real property under certain conditions....However, the Government admits that these conditions were not met and that the President's order was not rooted in either of the statutes....

Moreover, the use of the seizures technique to solve labor disputes in order to prevent work stoppages was not only unauthorized by any congressional enactment; prior to this controversy, Congress had refused to adopt that method of settling labor disputes. When the Taft-Hartley Act was under consideration in 1947, Congress rejected an amendment which would have authorized such governmental seizures in cases of emergency. Instead, the plan sought to bring about settlements by use of the customary devices of mediation, conciliation, investigations by boards of inquiry, and public reports. In some instances temporary injunctions were authorized to provide cooling-off periods. All this failing, unions were left free to strike....

It is clear that if the president had authority to issue the order he did, it must be found in some provision of the Constitution. And it is not claimed that express constitutional language grants this power to the President. The contention is that presidential power should be implied from the aggregate of his powers under the Constitution. Particular reliance is placed on provisions in Article II which say that "The executive Power shall be vested in a President"; that "he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed"; and that he "shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States."

The order cannot properly be sustained as an exercise of the President's military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Government attempts to do so by citing a number of cases upholding broad powers in military commanders engaged in day-to-day fighting in a theater of war. Such cases need not concern us here. Even though "theater of war" be an expanding concept, we cannot with faithfulness to our constitutional system hold that the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has the ultimate power as such to take possession of private property in order to keep labor disputes from stopping production. This is a job for the Nation's lawmakers, not for its military authorities.

Nor can the seizure order be sustained because of the several constitutional provisions that grant executive power to the President. In 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. The Constitution limits his functions in the law-making process to the recommending of laws he thinks wise and the vetoing of laws he thinks bad. And the Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute....

The President's order does not direct that a congressional policy be executed in a manner prescribed by Congress -- it directs that a presidential policy be executed in a manner prescribed by the President. The preamble of the order itself, like that of many statutes, sets out reasons why the President believes certain policies should be adopted, proclaims these policies as rules of conduct to be followed, and again, like a statute, authorizes a government official to promulgate additional rules and regulations consistent with the policy proclaimed and needed to carry that policy into execution. The power of Congress to adopt such public policies as those proclaimed by the order is beyond question. It can authorize the taking of private property for public use. It can make laws regulating the relationships between employers and employees, prescribing rules designed to settle labor disputes, and fixing wages and working conditions in certain fields of our economy. The Constitution does not subject this lawmaking power of Congress to presidential or military supervision or control.

It is said that other Presidents without congressional authority have taken possession of private business enterprises in order to settle labor disputes. But even if this be true, Congress has not thereby lost its exclusive constitutional authority to make laws necessary and proper to carry out the powers vested by the Constitution "in the Government of the United States, or any Department or Officer thereof."

The Founders of this Nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times. It would do no good to recall the historical events, the fears of power and the hopes for freedom that lay behind their choice. Such a review would but confirm our holding that this seizure order cannot stand.

Source: 343 U.S. 579 (1952).

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