• Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Korean War, the Supreme Court disallowed the president’s right to invoke emergency powers in order to seize and operate private businesses without prior congressional approval.

Fearful that a long strike would damage the war effort, President Harry S Truman issued an executive order instructing the secretary of commerce to take over the steel plants and maintain full production. Although there was no statutory authority for the seizure, the president argued that the policy was valid under his inherent powers as president and commander in chief. The steel companies argued that the seizure was unconstitutional unless authorized by an act of Congress. They emphasized that Congress, in passing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), had considered but rejected an amendment permitting the president to seize industrial facilities in order to resolve labor disputes.Korean WarPresidential powers;Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer]Korean War

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the companies. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. BlackBlack, Hugo L.;Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer] rejected Truman’s defense based on the existence of an inherent executive power. Reflecting his desire to adhere closely to the text of the Constitution, Black wrote that “the Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute.” In concurring opinions, several justices recognized an inherent executive power transcending the enumerated powers in Article II of the Constitution but joined the decision because Congress had specifically refused to give the president the kind of power that Truman had exercised. All members of the majority apparently agreed that Congress could have legitimately ordered or authorized the seizure of the steel mills. The three dissenters argued that presidents had been allowed to exercise similar emergency powers in the past.

The steel seizure case did not represent a complete repudiation of the theory of inherent presidential powers. The decision did make it clear, however, that the president is not invested with unbridled discretion in the name of national security. When examining the limits of executive actions, moreover, the Court indicated that it would consider both the explicit and the implicit will of Congress.

Foreign affairs and foreign policy

National security

Presidential powers

War powers

Wartime seizure power

Categories: History