Power of the U.S. government to seize the property of citizens, businesses, and persons identified with an enemy power during a time of war.
Wartime seizure power may be directed at both foreign and domestic property. Although substantial resources are available to redirect the nation’s economy in support of armed conflict or national defense, Congress passed a number of statutes penalizing private businesses or persons for failure to cooperate. The most important provisions are in the Trading with the Enemy Act (1917), the Selective Service Act (1940), the Atomic Energy Act (1946), and the Defense Production Act (1950).
The Trading with the Enemy Act
Provisions of the Selective Service Act included penalties for not giving priority to government procurement orders for materials needed by the armed forces. The law further called for requisition of private property in the event of noncompliance. The Defense Production Act gave the president authority to determine priorities in the fulfillment of contracts and imposed penalties for hoarding scarce materials or for failure to comply. The Atomic Energy Act established controls over the production and distribution of nuclear material and provided for its recapture in cases of war and national emergency.
During World War II (1941-1945), the Court upheld the power of the government to seize German property in Silesian-American Corp. v. Clark
The most significant case involving the seizure of a domestic industry during a wartime was Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer
In the majority opinion, Justice Hugo L. Black wrote that Truman lacked the statutory authority for the seizure and that the Article II grants of power did not provide the necessary authority. Five other members of the Court wrote concurring opinions, with most leaving room for the exercise of inherent executive powers in cases of emergency. Justice Robert H. Jackson’s concurring opinion remains an important and influential part of the Youngstown opinion. In it, Jackson asserted that the president enjoys maximum power when acting on the implied or express authorization of Congress and finds power at its lowest when acting contrary to the will and intent of Congress. In between is a “zone of twilight,” where the two branches may exercise concurrent authority and the distribution of power is uncertain. Jackson stated, however, that Truman’s actions did not fall into that uncertain zone and therefore deserved the strictest level of judicial review. Jackson concluded that unlike past cases dealing with the seizure of property owned by alien enemies during wartime, this case involved a taking of private property without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Although Youngstown remains valid law and is often quoted in discussions of presidential power in times of war and emergency, its strength as legal precedent is questionable. In Dames and Moore v. Regan
Fisher, Louis. Presidential War Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Marcus, Maeva. Truman and the Steel Seizure Case. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. O’Brien, David. Constitutional Law and Politics: Struggles for Power and Governmental Accountability. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
Dames and Moore v. Regan
Japanese American relocation
Military and the Court
World War II
Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer