Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)


Youngstown Sheet Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) was a Supreme Court case that dealt with the questions presented when President Harry Truman preemptively issued an executive order to seize several steel mills across the country in response to an impending steelworker strike. Through the use of Executive Order 10340 he ordered his Secretary of Commerce, Charles W. Sawyer, to seize the nation’s mills so as to ensure the continued production of steel for the ongoing American efforts in the Korean War (specifically for bullets, armor, and guns). Forced to comply with the government, the steel workers responded in kind by seeking an injunction against Sawyer within the District Court and charging that the seizure was in no way authorized by Congress nor had it been upheld by any constitutional provision (though Congress had been notified and up to that point had taken no action). The Supreme Court picked up the case after it had been stayed in the Court of Appeals and examined the following issue presented: “Could the President act alone to impose seizures without Congressional approval?”

With a 6-3 majority the Supreme Court affirmed the decisions made on behalf of the District Court and deemed that President Truman could not seize the mills. Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Hugo Black cited the explicit lack of Constitutional provisions that may have granted President Truman the ability to perform without Congressional approval. Furthermore Congress had taken special care with the Taft-Hartley Act to be rid of amendments that enabled seizure techniques to be applied as a solution to labor disputes or work stoppages, precisely the conundrum that Truman was enacting. There also lacked any mentioning of seizure within the Constitution (especially that of private property) within the spectrum of the President’s enumerated powers. Furthermore, Black argued that the ability as a lawmaker was granted to Congress, asserting that, through the issuance of the executive order, Truman was attempting to make a law. He asserted the President’s legislative powers do not endow him with the ability to create, only to recommend laws in which he agrees and vetoes that which he does not.

With a strong concurrence Justice Jackson identifies that three points of distinction to how a President takes actions alongside Congress. The first type of President is one who acts in accordance with Congress and has the express approval needed to perform his desires sees his authority regarded at its most credible. The second type of President is one who Acts on behalf of a Congress that is silent or also concurrent with his authority depends on the magnitude of the situation present (i.e. the collapse of a nation that prompted Abraham Lincoln to act on his own accord is a bit more credible than coercing steel mills to comply to produce goods for a war that needed not to be waged). Finally, the third type of President is one who acts in discord and incompatibly with the express powers or implied will of the Congress and operates at his lowest level of authority. Justice Jackson said that Truman’s instance fell into this last category.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Vinson argued that without the actions of the President, the nation’s entire steel industry would have dissolved and shut down. In addition to being responsible for America’s foreign affairs (especially so as the Commander in Chief), Vinson argued that the President was acting to uphold national security through the securing of armaments. Furthermore the President had indeed sent notification to Congress stating his justifications for the actions he intended to impose. Lastly his argument acknowledges the actions of previous Presidents that have taken prompt and decisive action in lieu of Congress when it was deemed necessary.

This case is significant as a strong basis of argument against implied powers of the President or the overzealous use of Presidential powers (which often time get tampered or abused in times of war or various crises). The Court also reaffirmed Congressional powers and prevented unnecessary acquisition and use of powers not expressly conferred to the President or appropriately implied within the Constitution. Today it is cited for Justice Jackson’s exemplary explanation of a President and when it is appropriate or inappropriate for their authority to be regarded and upheld. Perhaps most importantly it prevented tyranny from running amok within a regime that already dropped two atomic bombs on a nation and was unfairly regulating the economy because felt as though it “needed to”.

Timeline 1


In 1950 The United States was involved in the Korean War in which North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea). President Harry Truman sent troops to South Korea without the Congressional declaration of war. In April of 1952 President Truman issued an executive order telling the Secretary to seize and operate most of the nation’s steel mills.  The President reported the action to congress and they took no action.

During World War II the government imposed price controls; President Truman did not impose these during the Korean War. Instead, the Truman Administration opted to use the Wage Stabilization Board in an attempt to avoid inflation. The Wage Stabilization Board goal was to keep consumer inflation and wages down while also attempting to avoid labor disputes. The attempts to resolve labor disputes failed and the United Steelworkers of America threatened to strike. The workers rejected the board’s proposed wage increases and wanted greater steel prices then the government allowed.

The Truman Administration felt that a strike within the steel industry would create a grim disarray for the economy and the defense contractors. The United Steelworkers of America could not resolve the issues, so President Truman made an executive decision to seize the steel industry.

The Administration attempted to use the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The Taft-Hartley Act is a US federal law that restricts power and the activities of labor unions. Congress however, would not authorize governmental seizure as a tool to prevent a work stoppage when settling wage disputes. President Truman’s Administration created two new sub agencies under the Economic Stabilization Agency  (ESA). He established Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) and the Wage Stabilization Board (WSB). The OPS was given the power to regulate prices. The WSB oversaw the creation of wage stabilization rules. They stated that the steel industries were too uncertain and time consuming to be allowed to dispute the labor any further. President Truman did not consult Congress when the decision was made to seize the steel industry.

The steel companies then sued the Secretary in Federal District court searching for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. The steel companies got their steel companies back within 60 days of the seizure. The workers also gained the wages they were bargaining for before the seizure happened.

Procedural History

  • On April 9th Judge Holtzoff of the United States District Court, District of Columbia, denied the application for a temporary restraining order
    • It was on the grounds that “the balance of equities requires a denial”
    • It also left the door open for future applications if it was shown that there was irreparable damage
  • On April 24th and 25th Youngstown Steel & Tube Co. argued their case before Judge Pine of the District Court.
  • Judge Pine granted the plaintiff’s a preliminary injunction based on the grounds that the seizure was illegal and the President had no specific grant of power
  • The government appealed the injunction through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
    • In a 5 -4 decision on April 30 the court stayed the injunction pending another appeal by the government to the U.S. Supreme Court
  • With a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court granted writ of certiorari on May 3rd and set the cause for argument to be on May 12th
  • On June 2nd, the Court ruled 6-3 that the President’s seizure had been without authority and the judgement of the District Court was affirmed


  1. Should the final determination of the constitutionality of the President’s Executive Order be made being that it has proceeded no further than the preliminary injunction stage?
  2. Was the President acting within his constitutional power when he issued the Executive Order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate most of the Nation’s steel mills?

Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)

Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)


The question that was brought before the court was whether or not the President had constitutional power to issue an order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate the Nation’s steel mills.

Holding: No.

In this case, the court held that there was no statute giving the President power to seize steel mills. The Court determined that the President could not take possession of private property. The Court held that the President acted outside of his powers of Commander in Chief during the war. The Court also decided that the President’s war powers did not extend to labor disputes, and that there was no constitutional authority giving him the power to seize steel mills. There was no immediate threat to the U.S that needed this kind of order. The President could not implement policies, this had to be an act of Congress. The decision was affirmed in a 6-3 vote. Justice Black delivered the majority opinion of the court and he was joined by Justice Frankfurter. Justice Jackson wrote the concurring opinion, and was joined by Justices Burton, Douglas and Clark. The dissenting opinion was written by Chief Justice Vinson, who was joined by Justices Reed and Minton.

Majority Opinion (Black)

Justice Black wrote the majority opinion, in which he was joined by Justice Frankfurter. Justice Black believed the President did not need to take possession of the steel mills in an attempt to make sure this had no effect on the war.

First, Justice Black determines that there is no statute giving the President authority under the Commander in Chief Clause to take possession of the property like he did, because seizing the steel mills was not something that would necessarily be considered a war effort, therefore it did not fall under the powers of the President outlined in the Clause, making it unconstitutional.

Second, there was no act of Congress allowing the President to do so. As pointed out in the Constitution, Congress has the authority to make laws, not the president. Therefore, the president did not have the authority to execute the order. Justice Black stated this in his majority opinion, “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” (Skelton 2016). He states this to elaborate on the Constitution, which does not subject Congress’s lawmaking power to presidential or military control.

Concurring Opinion (Jackson)

Justice Jackson delivers the concurring opinion of the court. He points out three routes the president could have taken while handling the situation of seizing the steel mills.

  1. If he acts in accordance with his implied and expressed powers and along with the powers of Congress, then his powers are at an all time high.
  2. If the President acts in the absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, then he must rely on his own independent powers, but there may be concurrent authority with Congress in certain areas.
  3. If the President takes measures against the will of Congress, then his authority is at the lowest.

Justice Jackson delivers this opinion to show under which category this case falls under. He states that it falls under the third, because if the President’s argument was accepted then the executive branch could exert its authority over an business. This case falls under the third category because Congress did not allow the President to take control of private property, yet he did it against Congress’s authority. Justice Jackson points out how the U.S. Constitution is very explicit when stating that declaring war is an act of Congress only. Jackson also makes the argument that Congress is who ultimately provides the President with an army and weapons. Jackson states that the President ordering possession of the steel mill is an undermine to Congress’s authority.

Dissenting Opinion (Vinson)

Chief Justice delivered the dissenting opinion of the court. He starts his argument by saying that the President took extraordinary measures during extraordinary times. The President argued in his executive order that he knew he went against Congress’s will, but he felt that he had no other choice. President Truman stated, “The other alternatives appeared to be even worse – so much worse that I could not accept them” (Skelton 2016). Vinson states that since the President has any power under the Constitution to meet a critical situation, then there should be no basis for criticizing or disagreeing with the President’s decision to act on these powers. Vinson makes the argument that the Constitution is a “living” document and there was no way that the founding fathers could have predicted all the circumstances to come. He also makes the claim that Presidents in the past have acted promptly to emergencies to save the country until Congress itself could act on it. Vinson also reasoned that the President was not necessarily acting against Congress’s will, as he was acting for the public good of the nation and in a state of emergency. Vinson, Reed, and Minton all agree that they believed the President was simply performing his duty under the Take Care Clause in Article II Section III, which states that “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States” (Baltzell 2016). The biggest claim that Justice Vinson makes is, “there is no evidence whatever of any Presidential purpose to defy Congress or act in any way inconsistent with the legislative will” (Skelton 2016). This is important in writing the dissenting opinion because the concurring opinions were all about how the President went against Congress’s authority, but Vinson is arguing that the President acted on behalf of the better good of the nation.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance / Impact

The significance of the case is unprecedented in the history of American politics and law. The reason being because it worked to check one of the most egregious claims to power from any President at the time. It also worked to affirm ever further the Court’s role in mediating political questions in relation to the other branches of government, similar to the findings in Baker v. Carr and Powell v. McCormack. Perhaps the most influential part of this case is the approach Justice Robert Jackson takes in his concurring opinion. The Supreme Court would make use of his approach to later analyze the questions presented by Nixon and his administration when they planned to install wiretaps without the need for prior judicial approval. In Clinton v. Jones the court cited the decisions upheld in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer as justification for the permittance of litigation against the President. It was called upon for Medellin v. Texas, when President Bush had placed pressures on the state of Texas to review a murder conviction of a Mexican citizen who had tortured, brutalized, and murdered a pair of teenage girls. The Court would debate in this case over a decision made by the ICJ that had required those who enforced the law, the responsibility to notify members of the Mexican diplomacy of his arrest. In another 6-3 decision the Court would hold that ICJ’s holdings would not be enforceable within the United States and that President Bush had acted beyond his power as President. Citing Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v Sawyer, Justice John Roberts would go on to say that “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.” The case was not always utilized to make these arguments, such as in the case of Zemel v. Rusk, wherein the Court opted to rely on the powers granted to the Executive branch in matters such as foreign policy and thus drew back from the broader implications of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. Nor was the decision considered in any of the challenges brought on in opposition to the War in Vietnam. However, it was relied upon in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case in 2006, further highlighting its usefulness in modern law and a solid basis to question the overzealous actions taken by the government that usurps the other branches functions.

Timeline 2

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

  • Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces
  • Lawmaking Clauses of Congress (Article I Section VIII)
  • Commerce Clause

Major Statute(s) Under Review

Important Precedents

Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

“1952 Youngstown, OH Steel Strike.” Accessed May 01, 2016.

“C-SPAN Landmark Cases | Youngstown Sheet Tube Co v Sawyer.” C-SPAN Landmark Cases | Youngstown Sheet Tube Co v Sawyer. Accessed May 01, 2016.–Tube-Co-v-Sawyer.

“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions.” Findlaw. Accessed May 01, 2016.

QuimbeeDotCom. “Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer |” YouTube. August 04, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2016.

Think Legal Ease. “Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer – Landmark Cases – Episode # 6.” YouTube. January 26, 2016. Accessed May 01, 2016.

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Corwin, Edward S.. 1953. “The Steel Seizure Case: A Judicial Brick Without Straw”. Columbia Law Review 53 (1). Columbia Law Review Association, Inc.: 53–66. doi:10.2307/1119047.
Harbaugh, William H.. 1978. “The Steel Seizure Reconsidered”. Review of Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power. The Yale Law Journal 87 (6). The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.: 1272–83. doi:10.2307/795738.

Kurland, Philip B., and Gerald Gunther. Zorach v. Clauson (1952) ; Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) ; Terry v. Adams (1953). Bethesda, MD: U Publications of America, 1975. Print.

Marcus, Maeva. Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994.

Richberg, Donald R.. 1952. “The Steel Seizure Cases”. Virginia Law Review 38 (6). Virginia Law Review: 713–27. doi:10.2307/1069136.


Spring 2016: Alexandra Klimetz, Cameron Sperry, Jaclynn Burnett, Katherine McLemore, and Kyael Moss