Anybody following the discussion about the presidential wiretapping scandal has heard reference to “the Youngstown case.” It occurs to me that while this is meaningful to me, it’s likely not to most people. So I dug up a case brief that I wrote about Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer in my Constitutional Law class in March of 2004. Note that this does not contain my opinion or reflect my beliefs — it merely describes the conclusions of the Supreme Court. I’ve stripped out all of the footnotes, since they’re not useful without a copy of our textbook.
For what it’s worth, I got the highest grade in the class on this assignment; this is good information, at least to the estimation of Prof. Jong Ra and within the context of an undergraduate-level constitutional law class.
A Brief Description of the Facts of the Case
In 1952, during the “police action” in Korea, the United Steel Workers called a strike, as a result of a labor dispute. President Harry Truman issued an executive order, seizing the steel mills to ensure their continued operation, in the name of the war effort. The steel companies sought an injunction to prevent the seizure.
Legal Question at Issue
There is little question that, in times of grave national emergency, the president may take extraordinary action for the purpose of maintaining the state of the union and, of course, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” What is unclear is what constitutes a grave national emergency, and how extraordinary the president’s actions may be. Plainly, a “grave national emergency” cannot be merely what the president says it is, any more than “extraordinary” can be.
The executive can act more rapidly than the congress; about this there is little debate. But merely because the president can act more rapidly than Congress does not necessitate that he do so. If there are scenarios in which Congress must cede authority to the president, it is questionable, at best, if that scenario would include the one in question: during April and May of 1952, the 81st Congress was in session, and presumably could have taken action rapidly, given the specter of the purported “national catastrophe.”
May the president, in the name of rapidity and national security, unilaterally order the maintenance of the status quo, even if doing so violates the spirit, if not the letter, of congressional authority? May the president do so even if it violates the Bill of Rights? What, indeed, are the limits to the actions that the executive may take in the name of securing the nation?
The Court’s Ruling
The court ruled six to three in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the president had overstepped his constitutional authority.
The Opinion of the Court: Its Rationale
The majority’s decision, written by Justice Hugo Black, considers the presidential ability to engage in lawmaking, the powers delegated to the president by Congress, the president’s role as Commander in Chief, the powers of the president in times of emergency, and the precedent that would be set by a ruling in favor of President Truman.
The majority sums up each side’s core argument, writing that “[t]he mill owners argue that the President’s order amounts to lawmaking,” and that “the government’s position is that…his action was necessary to avert a national catastrophe…”. Indeed, the president believed “that the proposed work stoppage would immediate jeopardize our national defense,” and thus that he needed to act quickly.
Although the president surely did believe that, the court seeks to determine under what authority the president’s action was issued.
“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 be implied.”
In fact, not only had Congress not authorized the president to seize the steel mills, they had, by willful omission, prevented such authority from being delegated. When the Taft-Hartley Act was being debated by Congress in 1947, just five years previously, Congress chose to reject an amendment that would have permitted a seizure such as the one in question, making plain the intent of the legislature, in spirit, if not in letter.
The majority dismisses the idea that the president is authorized to seize the mills under the auspices of his role as Commander in Chief, writing that “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.”
Returning to the matter of constitutionality, Black points out that it is up to the legislature to create legislation. “[T]he Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute.”
Lest there be some question as to whether a mechanism is in place to handle problems such as the threatened work stoppage, the majority offers a reminder that Congress can and does grant “large emergency powers,” making it unnecessary for the president to do so unilaterally. This is best, Black writes, because “[s]uch power has no beginning or it has no end.”
The power of the executive is great enough that any further enlargement would provide an imbalance, writes Black. “I cannot be brought to believe that this country will suffer if the Court refuses further to aggrandize the presidential office, already so potent and so relatively immune from judicial review, at the expense of Congress. […] The Executive, except for recommendation and veto, has no legislative power.”
Even if it were accepted that the president should be granted the power that he has claimed in this instance, “[w]e do not know today what powers over labor or property would be claimed to flow from Government possession if we should legalize it.” To ignore the Fifth Amendment would be, ultimately, to kill it.
Justices Harold Burton, Thomas Clark, William O. Douglas, and Felin Frankfurter each filed a concurring opinion.
In Justice Burton’s brief concurring opinion, he argues that the president is ignoring existing procedures for use in such times of emergency, those procedures having been established by Congress. He also asserts that the president’s actions “violated the essence of the principle of the separation of governmental powers.”
Justice Clark believes that the president is granted by the constitution “extensive authority in times of grave and imperative national emergency,” but counters that “where Congress has laid down specific procedures to deal with the type of crisis confronting the President, he must follow those procedures in meeting the crisis”. Given that “Congress had prescribed methods to be followed by the President in meeting the emergency at hand,” Clark cannot find in favor of the president.
Justice Douglas concedes that the threatened strike did constitute an emergency, but argues that:
“[T]he emergency did not create power; it merely marked an occasion when power should be exercised. And the fact that it was necessary that measures be taken to keep steel in production does not mean that the President, rather than the Congress, had the constitutional authority to act.”
Douglas expresses concern about the similarity between the president’s seizure of the mills and simple condemnation, citing the Fifth Amendment to demonstrate that the president’s actions were a violation of the mill owners’ constitutional rights.
Finally, Justice Frankfurter considers the limitations of the powers of seizure. He writes that “[t]he power to seize has uniformly been given only for a limited period or for a defined emergency, or has been repealed after a short period,” and that such seizure occurs under narrowly-defined conditions. The president has exceeded those limitations, by his estimation, despite Congress’ willful decision not to give the president the power to make such seizures.
Chief Justice Fredrick Vinson and Justices Stanley Reed and Sherman Minton filed a dissenting opinion, as written by Justice Vinson.
The dissent is based on an interest in the ends, rather than the means. “[T]he central fact of this case,” Vinson writes, is that “the Nation’s entire basic steel production would have shut down completely if there had been no Government seizure”. Doing so, the minority claims, would likely have gained later approval from Congress, given that “Congress and the courts have responded to such executive initiative with consistent approval.”
It is Vinson’s opinion that the president’s power to engage in such seizure is warranted under his constitutional obligation that he “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Given that “a work stoppage in steel production would immediately imperil the safety of the Nation by preventing execution of the legislative programs for procurement of military equipment,” the president’s order was justifiable, since it was issued under the auspices of executing the legislature’s directives.
The minority is disinterested in the majority’s assertions that Congress has not given the president the power to seize, since there is no law that says that seizure may not be used to enforce legislation. As further evidence of the president’s ability to seize, they cite The Defense Production Act as providing the president with authority to “requisition equipment and condemn real property needed without delay in the defense effort.”
The president was acting like the judiciary does when they issue a stay: maintaining the status quo until action could be taken. Vinson believes that it is important to see the president’s actions in that light, writing that “[t]here is no question that the possession was other than temporary in character and subject to congressional direction….”
In short, the president did what was necessary to sustain the war effort and broke no laws in the process.