Constitutional Law I, Pages 354–364

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

Supreme Court of the United States, 1952


President Truman issued an executive order directing Sawyer, the Secretary of Commerce, to take possession of and operate most of the nation's steel mills to prevent a strike potentially shutting down steel production. The companies brought suit against the secretary.

Procedural History:

District court issued a preliminary injunction restraining the secretary from "continuing the seizure and possession of the plants."


Was Truman's executive order a valid exercise of his constitutional powers as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces?


Congress did not authorize the president to take possession of property like this, so to be valid, it must come from the constitution.

It is not a valid power as Commander in Chief however as America is not part of the Korean War's "theater of war." Preventing labor disputes from interfering with production is a job for the legislature, not the military.

It is also not a valid executive power from elsewhere in the Constitution. The president is to enforce the law, not create it. His only involvement in the lawmaking procedure is his veto power. This is not enforcing some policy created by Congress; the president is just creating his own policy, like a statute.

Other presidents may have done this in the past, but that does not mean that Congress has lost its exclusive power. Such past reasoning does not need to be examined here.


No, the executive order was unconstitutional. Affirmed.

Concurring Opinions:

  • Frankfurter: Allowing this would bring the president slightly closer to being a dictator, which is why the Constitution separated powers. Congress has frequently provided for executive seizure of property, always limiting it however, showing that it thought it a drastic power that needed to be used carefully, especially by the president.

    Congress has also denied the president such powers at times. Obviously if Congress said the president could not do this, he could not. By its declining to grant the president such powers at times, it has said just as clearly that the president is not allowed to exercise such powers.

    The referenced historical examples were isolated and different from the present situation. While the separation of powers may make the country slower-moving than others, this was deemed to be a worthwhile trade-off by the founding fathers when establishing it like it is.

  • Douglas: The emergency here did not create power; it was merely an occasion when power should be exercised. Taking the plant is a constitutional taking, and the government must pay compensation for it. The president has no power to raise revenues, so Congress would have to. Unless Congress ratifies the seizure, no condemnation would be lawful, as the executive branch cannot pay for it.

  • Jackson: Cases concerning the limitations of executive powers are sparse, enigmatic, and often contradictory. Actual governance does not conform to judicial definitions of the branches' powers. Not only must power be dispersed, it must enable a working government.

    The president has the most power when acting under the authority of Congress. Without these, he can only exercise his own powers, which are sometimes concurrent with Congress'. But when the president does things incompatible with Congress' will, he has the least power. His powers are then only his own, minus any powers with overlap with Congress'.

    Here, Congress has not authorized the act. It has also covered seizures under multiple statutes inconsistent with this one. Thus, this would have to be under the President's inherent control and outside of Congress'. This is not said clearly in the Constitution. Such a major power would not be not left implied in the Constitution, while other trifling items are included.

    The power as Commander in Chief does not empower this. It is Congress' job to support the armies and "to provide and maintain a Navy." This is more fitting here and shows that the president's powers are not all "war powers." The president is not intended to usurp internal affairs during times of war. This is obvious from the Constitution and American history.

    The Constitution does not does not grant such powers in an "emergency." Granting the president them would tend to kindle many such emergencies. It would be a step towards a dictatorship. This is Congress' power, which has the duty to preserve America's free government by delegating this power in actual emergencies.

  • Clark: The limits of presidential power are obscure, but the Constitution does grant the President extensive authority in times of emergency. However, where Congress has laid down specific procedures to deal with a crisis, the president must follow these. Here, Congress had prescribed methods to be followed by the president in handling the emergency, and the president has not followed them.

Dissenting Opinion:

Vinson: America is threaten by a global conflict more terrifying than World War II. Stopping the steel mills could jeopardize our national defense. Past presidents have often exercised powers without statutory authorization in such emergency situations. Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation and FDR did many such acts during World War II, including seizing plants. No statute prohibits President Truman from doing such a seizure or that he intended to defy Congress. Limiting the president as the majority does would prevent the president from acting even to preserve Congress from destruction and require him to just wait on it. This would not turn the president into a dictator. It has been done before without doing.

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