Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

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Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer 343 U.S. 579 (1952) was a Supreme Court decision that limited presidential power over private companies during a war. The three-part structural test used by Justice Robert Jackson is still used by the Supreme Court today, and continues doctrine used by courts prior to Youngstown.


In 1951, the United States went to war with North Korea. President Truman, judging the nation's industrial capacity as an extremely important tool in the war, was concerned by labor unrest at the Youngstown plant in question. When a strike ensued, Truman attempted to seize the Youngstown plant under an Executive Order.

Critical to the case is the fact that the Congress had previously considered granting such power to the President, in a labor relations bill, but declined to do so.


The Court invalidated Truman's Executive Order. Bypassing an inquiry as to whether or not the President had the power to do this in the presence of congressional silence, the Court noted that the Congress had explicitly forbidden the President from taking this action, and that the President, as the "executor" of the laws, may not overstep the Congress' limits upon his office. Justice Jackson gave the following test:

  1. Where the Executive acts with Congressional approval, his power is at its zenith, and the Court will rarely check his power. Future cases have still set limits on this category (see Hamdi for Justice O'Connor's analysis of it).
  2. Where the Executive acts without Congressional approval or disapproval, there is a "twilight" area that the Court will analyze closely, and on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Where the Executive acts with Congressional disapproval, his power is at its "lowest ebb," and the Court will almost always invalidate Executive action.

The case sidesteps the possibility that the President has independent powers, treating him as an enabler and custodian of the law of Congress, under the "Take Care" clause of the Constitution (Article II, Section 2).

Justice Jackson's Concurrence

Subsequent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court addressing the scope of Presidential power have relied on Justice Jackson's concurring opinion. At one point the Court even described it as "analytically useful." Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U.S. 654, 669 (1981).

In his concurrence, Justice Jackson classified executive action into three familiar categories:

  • First, "[w]hen the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate." Youngstown, 343 U.S. at 635 (Jackson, J., concurring). Action within that first category is constitutional, unless the federal government "as an undivided whole lacks power." Id. at 637.
  • Second, "[w]hen the President acts in the absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain." Ibid. In that second category, "congressional inertia, indifference, or quiescence may sometimes, at least as a practical matter, enable, if not invite, measures on independent presidential responsibility." Ibid.
  • Third, "[w]hen the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter." Ibid. In that third category, "[c]ourts can sustain exclusive presidential control ... only by disabling the Congress from acting." Id. at 637-638.

Notes & Subsequent History

Youngstown characterizes the institutional process approach to separation of powers, whereby, when the President's actions raise a Constitutional question, rather than inquire as to the right the Executive has to take the action, if the action is done with Congressional approval, it is almost always constitutional. While civil libertarians fear that this may result in the death of civil liberties, Commentators Issacharoff & Pildes argue that the Youngstown approach underlies earlier cases such as Milligan, and Korematsu, and further point out that the Youngstown institutional process approach has allowed the United States to effectively balance freedom & extreme situations without an inquiry as to basic rights, obviating a need for a special rights inquiry.[1]

Justice Frankfurter concurred in the opinion, and wrote that the Executive had exceeded his authority in seizing the steel plants. Interestingly, as a young lawyer, Frankfurter had come to the exact opposite conclusion! The fact of Frankfurter's separate concurrence, then, is a high point of American constitutional law. It demonstrates that, to paraphrase Justice Cardozo, when a lawyer becomes a Justice, he or she steps before the bar anew, stripped bare of prior interests and acting only in defense of the Constitution, and not an ideological agenda.

The Youngstown test underlies the holding in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, two important executive power cases arising from the War on Terror.


  1. Issacharoff & Pildes, "Between Civil Libertarianism and Executive Unilateralism: An Institutional Process Approach to Rights During Wartime" (accessible here).