This month we spotlight a case that turned on the constitutional principle of separation of powers and rights in times of crisis: Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952). During the Korean War, did President Harry Truman have the power to take over steel mills to ensure their continued operation during a strike?
It was 1950 and troops from communist North Korea had invaded the Republic of Korea. Backed by a United Nations Resolution, President Truman sent U.S. troops to aid South Korea. He did not ask for a declaration of war from Congress.
Less than two years later, the war in Korea had increased demand for steel, and prices had risen. The Department of Labor had created a Wage Stabilization Board after World War II to handle labor disputes in fields that were essential to defense. The Board’s purpose was to prevent wages, and therefore prices, from climbing too high. As steel prices rose, the steel worker union, United Steel Workers of America, threatened a strike unless they received a wage increase greater than what the Wage Stabilization Board would approve.
Truman believed that it would be a disaster for the nation if steel production were stopped. He ordered his Secretary of Commerce to take and operate the steel mills, to ensure that the military effort in Korea would not be disrupted.
The mill owners believed Truman’s order was unconstitutional because the seizure was not authorized by any law, and they took the case to the Supreme Court. Truman argued that the President’s power as Commander in Chief empowered him to take over and operate the steel mills. Further, he referenced the many times in American history that the government had seized private property in wartime.
The Court disagreed with Truman and held that neither the Constitution nor any act of Congress allowed the President to take over the steel mills. “The President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.” There had been no act of Congress, so the Court turned to the Constitution. The Court ruled that the President’s role of Commander in Chief power did not authorize the action, and neither did 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 ruling was based on the Constitution’s separation of powers. Legal scholars point out that the Court did not rule that any seizure would have been unconstitutional. Rather, Truman’s actions were unconstitutional because he did not have any legislative authority.
The Wage Stabilization Board was abolished in 1953.
Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions
- What was the constitutional question in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952)?
- How did the Court rule?
- How does this case illustrate the constitutional principles of separation of powers?
- The Court held that “The Constitution limits [the president’s] functions in the lawmaking 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 [unclear] about who shall make laws which the president is to execute.” To whom does the Constitution give lawmaking power? How would you put this statement in your own words?
Read the complete Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer at Legal Information Institute. After considering the Court’s reasoning, do you think that the majority would have struck down a government takeover of steel mills to avoid a wartime strike if it had been done by an act of Congress? Why or why not?