Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

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Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued May 12–13, 1952
Decided June 2, 1952
Full case nameYoungstown Sheet & Tube Company, et al. v. Charles Sawyer, Secretary of Commerce
Citations343 U.S. 579 (more)
72 S. Ct. 863; 96 L. Ed. 1153; 1952 U.S. LEXIS 2625; 21 Lab. Cas. (CCH) ¶ 67,008; 1952 Trade Cas. (CCH) ¶ 67,293; 62 Ohio L. Abs. 417; 47 Ohio Op. 430; 26 A.L.R.2d 1378; 30 L.R.R.M. 2172
Case history
PriorInjunction granted to plaintiffs, 103 F. Supp. 569 (D. D.C. 1952); injunctions stayed, 197 F.2d 582 (D.C. Cir. 1952); cert. granted, 343 U.S. 937 (1952).
The President did not have the inherent authority to seize private property in the absence of either specifically enumerated authority under Article Two of the Constitution or statutory authority conferred on him by Congress.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Fred M. Vinson
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · Stanley F. Reed
Felix Frankfurter · William O. Douglas
Robert H. Jackson · Harold H. Burton
Tom C. Clark · Sherman Minton
Case opinions
MajorityBlack, joined by Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton
DissentVinson, joined by Reed, Minton
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. II

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952), also commonly referred to as the Steel Seizure Case or the Youngstown Steel case,[1] was a United States Supreme Court decision that limited the power of the President of the United States to seize private property. The case served as a check on the most far-reaching claims of executive power at the time and signaled the Court's increased willingness to intervene in political questions.

In the midst of the Korean War, the United Steel Workers of America threatened a strike, for higher wages, against the major steel producers in the United States. As President Harry S. Truman believed that a strike of any length would cause severe dislocations for defense contractors, Truman seized control of steel production facilities, keeping the current operating management of the companies in place to run the plants under federal direction. Though the steelworkers supported the move, the steel companies launched a legal challenge to the seizure on the grounds that the president lacked the power to seize private property without express authorization from Congress.

In his majority opinion, Associate Justice Hugo Black held that the president lacked the power to seize the steel mills in the absence of statutory authority conferred on him by Congress. Five other justices agreed with the outcome of the case but wrote concurring opinions; some of these justices argued that the president might have the power to seize property absent legislative authorization in more extreme circumstances. Justice Robert H. Jackson's concurring opinion laid out a tripartite framework of presidential power that would prove influential among legal scholars and others charged with assessing executive power. In his dissent, Chief Justice Fred Vinson argued that the president's action was necessary to preserve the status quo so that Congress could act in the future. Truman was stunned by the decision, but he immediately restored control of the steel mills to their owners.


The United States was involved in the Korean War in 1950, when President Harry Truman chose not to impose price controls, as the federal government had done during World War II. Instead, the administration attempted to avoid inflationary pressures through creation of a Wage Stabilization Board that sought to keep down the inflation of consumer prices and wages while avoiding labor disputes whenever possible. Those efforts failed, however, to avoid a threatened strike against all of the major steel producers by the United Steel Workers of America when the steel industry rejected the board's proposed wage increases unless they were allowed greater price increases than the government was prepared to approve.

The Truman administration believed a strike of any length would cause severe dislocations for defense contractors and for the domestic economy as a whole. Unable to mediate the differences between the union and the industry, Truman decided to seize production facilities, while he kept the current operating management of the companies in place to run the plants under federal direction.

Rather than seizing the plants, Truman might have invoked the national emergency provisions of the Taft–Hartley Act to prevent the union from striking. The administration rejected that option, however, both from a distaste for the Act, which had been passed over Truman's veto five years earlier, and because the administration saw the industry, rather than the union, as the cause of the crisis.

The administration also rejected use of the statutory procedure provided under Section 18 of the Selective Service Act that might have permitted seizure of the industry's steel plants on the ground that compliance with this procedure was too time-consuming and the outcome of compliance too uncertain. Truman chose not to go to Congress to obtain additional statutory authorization for a seizure of the steel industry for the same reasons. That left invocation of the President's inherent authority to act in response to a national emergency.

The Steelworkers favored government seizure of the plants under any available theory to a Taft–Hartley injunction against it; Arthur Goldberg, General Counsel for the Steelworkers and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), argued that the President had the inherent power to seize the plants, as well as the statutory authority under the Selective Service Act and the Defense Production Act.

The steel industry, on the other hand, appears to have been taken by surprise, as it had apparently assumed until shortly before Truman made his April 8, 1952 announcement that he would take the less risky step of seeking a national emergency injunction under the Taft–Hartley Act instead. However, the industry was, as events showed, ready to act once he announced the seizure by a national television and radio broadcast.

Prior history[edit]

The steel companies reacted immediately, sending attorneys to the home of Judge Walter Bastian of the D.C. District Court within 30 minutes of the end of the President's speech to ask for the issuance of a temporary restraining order. Judge Bastian scheduled a hearing for 11:30 the next day to hear arguments on the motion.

Because hearings on emergency motions came before a randomly-chosen judge, the hearing the next day was before Judge Alexander Holtzoff, a Truman appointee. Judge Holtzoff denied the motion on the ground that the balance of equities favored the government.

The case was then assigned to Judge David Andrew Pine, who heard the steel companies' motions for a preliminary injunction. In its papers, the government stressed the ultimate constitutional issue of whether the President had the power to seize the mills; the steel companies appeared to be shying away from that issue by focusing on the equities and asking the Court merely to enjoin the federal government from entering into a collective bargaining agreement with the Steelworkers.

Judge Pine indicated, however, that he was interested in the fundamental issue of Presidential power; even so, the steel companies' attorneys continued to steer the discussion back to the equities and the President's statutory power under the Taft–Hartley Act. After the attorney for one of the smaller producers, Armco Steel Corporation, finally challenged the government's right to seize its property without Congressional authorization, Judge Pine then asked the attorney for the government to respond.

The Assistant Attorney General may have done more harm to the government's case than the steel companies had. Asked by Judge Pine for the source of the President's authority, he offered "Sections 1, 2 and 3 of Article II of the Constitution and whatever inherent, implied or residual powers may flow therefrom". When the Court asked if the government took the position that "when the sovereign people adopted the limited the powers of the Congress and limited the powers of the judiciary, but it did not limit the powers of the Executive", he assured Judge Pine that this was the case. He was, however, unable to name any cases that had held that the President had this power.

His presentation committed the Truman administration to an absolutist version of Presidential power that went beyond the administration's own position. Truman's supporters in Congress first distanced themselves from the argument, then spread the message that Truman disavowed it as well. Finally, Truman issued a statement responding to a constituent's letter in which he acknowledged in very general terms the limitations that the Constitution imposed on his power to respond in a national emergency.

Two days later, Judge Pine issued an injunction barring the government from continuing to hold the steel plants it had seized.[2] The Steelworkers began their strike within minutes of the announcement of the injunction. The government promptly appealed.

It first, however, formally requested that Judge Pine stay his order, and permit the government to resume control of the plants, ending the strike by the Steelworkers. He declined to do so. The government then applied for a stay in the D.C. Circuit. The Court, sitting en banc, granted the government's request for a stay by a 5-4 vote on April 30, then denied a motion for reconsideration by the steel companies that sought to amend the stay order to bar the government from increasing wages by the same margin the following day. The stay granted by the Court of Appeals was conditioned, however, on the government's filing of a petition for certiorari by May 2, 1952, and only lasted until the Supreme Court acted on that petition.[3]

The government filed its petition for certiorari on May 2, only to discover that the steel companies had already filed one of their own. The government renewed its request for a stay.

In the meantime, the White House convened a meeting between the Steelworkers and the major steel companies on May 3. Those talks made rapid progress and might have produced an agreement, but the announcement that the Supreme Court had granted certiorari and issued a stay allowing the government to maintain possession of the steel mills but coupled with an order barring any increase in wages during the pendency of the appeal had removed any incentive the steel companies had to reach agreement on a new contract with the union.

Proceedings before the Court[edit]

The Court set the matter for oral argument on May 12, 1952, less than ten days later. The government's brief opened with an attack on Judge Pine's application of equitable principles to the facts before him, but devoted much of its 175 pages to the historical records of governmental seizure of private property during wartime, from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 through Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and seizure of telegraph and railroad lines to the government's seizure of industrial properties in the First and Second World Wars.

The steel industry's brief focused instead on the lack of statutory authority for this seizure, emphasizing Congress' decision when enacting the Taft–Hartley Act to give the President the power to seek an injunction against strikes that might affect the national economy instead. It denied that the President had any power to seize private property without express legislative authorization, noting that Truman himself had asked for such legislative authority when the United Mine Workers of America went out on strike in 1950.

The Court set aside five hours for oral argument, while allowing the Steelworkers and the railroad unions to speak as amicus curiae. Before an overflow crowd, John W. Davis argued for the steel companies that the President had no powers to make laws or, more particularly, to seize property without Congressional authorization. He explained away his own actions when he had defended the government's seizure of property while he had been Solicitor General in the Wilson administration and urged the justices to look beyond the transitory labor dispute before them to the constitutional principles at stake, closing with Thomas Jefferson's words, slightly misquoted, "In questions of power let no more be said of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution". Justice Frankfurter was the only Justice to interrupt Davis with a question, and only one, during his argument.

Truman's Solicitor General Philip B. Perlman had a rockier argument, as the Justices pressed him with questions on many of the points he made. Justice Jackson took pains to distinguish the facts concerning the seizure of the North American Aviation Company in 1941 which he had overseen as Attorney General at the time. Justice Douglas commented that if Perlman were correct as to the scope of the President's powers, then there was no need for Congress. When Perlman attempted to close on a rousing note, reminding the Justices that this was wartime, Justices Jackson and Frankfurter immediately contradicted him, noting that Congress had not declared war.

Goldberg, speaking for the Steelworkers, addressed whether the Taft–Hartley Act would have allowed for injunctive relief in these circumstances. The attorneys for the railroad brotherhoods, who were parties to a similar action coming up for review, addressed the President's inherent powers. Davis then gave his rebuttal, using only a few minutes of the hour he had reserved.

Even despite the Court's evident lack of sympathy for the broad claims of inherent power made by the government, Truman and many other observers expected the Court to uphold his authority to act in the absence of express statutory authorization. Many commentators predicted that the Court would avoid the constitutional question, while others stressed the background that all of the Justices had in the New Deal and Fair Deal, when the powers of the Presidency had expanded greatly, and the past support of Justices such as Black, Reed, Frankfurter, and Douglas for the expansive application of the President's war powers.

As it turns out, most of those predictions were wrong. While Justice Burton harbored fears at one point that he might be the only Justice to vote against the government's position, he was encouraged by his private conversations with other Justices. In the end, the Court voted 6–3 to affirm the District Court's injunction barring the President from seizing the steel plants.

Majority opinion[edit]

Justice Black wrote for the majority. It was delivered exactly three weeks after the oral hearing on June 2nd. 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[edit]

William O. Douglas[edit]

Douglas took a similarly absolutist approach to the President's assertion of inherent power to cope with a national emergency.

Felix Frankfurter[edit]

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 Jackson[edit]

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 towards Congress into three categories (in descending order of legitimacy):

  • Cases in which the President was acting with express or implied authority from Congress
  • Cases in which Congress had thus far been silent, referred to as a 'zone of twilight'
  • Cases in which the President was defying congressional orders (the "third category")

Jackson's framework would influence future Supreme Court cases concerning the president's powers and the relation between Congress and the presidency.[4]

Harold Hitz Burton[edit]

Burton likewise concluded 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[edit]

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, concluding 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[edit]

Chief Justice Vinson dissented; Justices Reed and Minton joined him. His opinion dealt at some length with 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".

Effects of the decision[edit]

President Harry Truman

Within minutes of the Court's ruling, Truman ordered Commerce Secretary Charles Sawyer to return the steel mills to their owners. Sawyer did so immediately. The Steelworkers went out on strike again shortly thereafter. The strike lasted for more than fifty days until the President threatened to use the somewhat cumbersome procedures under the Selective Service Act to seize the mills.

Truman was stunned by the decision, which he continued to attack years later in his Memoirs. Justice Black was concerned enough that Truman would take the decision personally that he invited Truman and his fellow Justices to a party at his home. Truman, still smarting from the defeat, was mollified somewhat by Black's hospitality; as he told Black, "Hugo, I don't much care for your law, but, by golly, this bourbon is good".[5]

The multiplicity of opinions made it difficult to determine just what the Court had decided as to whether and when the President had authority to act without Congressional authorization. In large part this was the result of the fact that the administration had made a weak case—the evidence of an actual emergency was tenuous, given the substantial stockpiles of steel products in many sectors of the economy at the time—even weaker by overstating its position and offering incoherent arguments in the early phases of the litigation that turned public opinion against it, while framing the public debate in the most simplistic terms.

The decision nonetheless has had a broad impact. It represented a check on the most extreme claims of executive power at the time. It also represented the Court's assertion of its own role in intervening in political questions, as the Court later did in Baker v. Carr and Powell v. McCormack. The Court also applied the Frankfurter-Jackson approach to analyzing Congress' legislative authorization of Presidential action in invalidating efforts by the Nixon administration to plant wiretaps without prior judicial approval, while citing it more generally in support of its decision to permit litigation against the President to proceed in Clinton v. Jones. The high court also relied on Youngstown in Medellín v. Texas, 06-984 (2008). In that case, President Bush had pressured the state of Texas to review the murder conviction of a Mexican citizen who had tortured and raped two teenage girls in 1993, arguing that a 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) required law enforcement authorities to tell the accused of his right under the Vienna Convention to notify Mexican diplomats of his detention. In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that ICJ rulings were not enforceable in the United States, and Bush's actions were unconstitutional. Quoting Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded, "The president's authority to act, as with the exercise of any governmental power, 'must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.'"[6]

However, the Court drew back from some of the implications of its decision, refusing to rely on Youngstown as authority to review the failed challenges brought against the War in Vietnam and deferring to the Executive's authority over foreign policy in cases such as Zemel v. Rusk. The Court cited Youngstown in the 2006 decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hudson, David L. (2010). "The Handy Law Answer Book". Visible Ink Press. A prime example of a separation of powers problem presented itself in the Youngstown Steel case of Youngstown Co. v. Sawyer (1952).
  2. ^ Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 103 F. Supp. 569 (D.D.C. 1952).
  3. ^ Sawyer v. United States Steel Co., 197 F.2d 582 (D.C. Cir. 1952).
  4. ^ Rosen, Mark D. (2007). "Revisiting Youngstown: Against the View That Jackson 's Concurrence Resolves the Relation Between Congress and the Commander-in-Chief" (PDF). UCLA L. Rev. 54 (1703): 1.
  5. ^ Rosen, Jeffrey. "Social Court; The Justice Who Came to Dinner". New York Times.
  6. ^ Quoted in David Stout, "Justices Rule Against Bush on Death Penalty Case," New York Times, March 25, 2008.

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