343 U.S. 579 (1952)

On December 18, 1951, the United Steelworkers of America announced that they had had enough from the American steel industry, and notified their employers that they would strike on December 31st, when their bargaining agreements were scheduled to expire. This would be a pretty straightforward labor action if it weren't in the steel industry. Governments see steel as one of the most important bases for a wartime economy (hence the ECSC), and President Harry S. Truman was understandably reluctant to let the steel industry halt production right in the middle of the Korean War.

So, just hours before the steel mills were to shut down, Truman issued Executive Order 10340, which placed all U.S. steel mills under the direction of the Department of Commerce. The mills begrudgingly went along with the order, but sued Commerce Secretary Charles W. Sawyer for taking an unconstitutional and unlawful action. The government's defense was that the President had historical and case law precedent to protect the safety of the United States. The district court ruled in favor of the mills and issued an injuction to halt the mill seizures, but the government appealed the same day and had the injuction stayed.

The mills appealed again, and the entire mess ended up in the United States Supreme Court. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion, which basically stated that all of the president's powers stem from either acts of Congress, or from the Constitution itself.

In this case, Congress had never given Truman the authority to seize steel mills. In fact, Congress had voted against granting such an authority during debate over the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The Constitution, likewise, never gave Truman this authority. Government lawyers argued that it fell under the president's responsibilities as chief executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but Black argued that the President had no authority to make laws as an executive, and that his commander-in-chief duties were limited to the operations of the army and navy, not to the entire defense superstructure.

So the district court's ruling was upheld, and the government didn't get to keep the steel mills.

Justice Robert Jackson wrote a concurring opinion to Black's that has since become one of the most basic legal frameworks for presidential powers. He proposed three "practical situations in which a President may doubt, or others may challenge, his powers," which are:

  1. If the president's actions are pursuant to a Congressional act, they "personify the federal sovereignty," and any challenge of them is a challenge of the entire federal government's power (which is pretty difficult to pull off, but not impossible).
  2. If the president's actions are not regulated by any Congressional legislation, "abstract theories of law" don't really apply. This is, in Jackson's words, a "zone of twilight" where the president can act in any way that he deems to be prudent, but where the president may be subject to personal responsibility if things go wrong.
  3. If the president's actions are incompatible with Congressional decisions, he can only defend them with his enumerated constitutional powers minus the constitutional powers of Congress. This was where, Jackson argued, the Youngstown case fell.

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