Steel Seizure Case ruling reins in presidential power

The 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Steel Seizure Case reminds us of the capacity of the nation’s High Tribunal to stand tall in the defense of the rule of law and American Constitutionalism.

On June 2, 1952, the Court, in the extraordinary case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, reined in executive authority when it declared unconstitutional President Harry S. Truman’s assertion of “inherent power” to seize the nation’s steel mills to prevent a strike that he feared would imperil America’s conduct of the Korean War and its mammoth project to rebuild Europe, decimated by World War II. The Court, in a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Hugo Black, held that a president may not seize private property without congressional authorization.

Youngstown’s landmark status and deserving rank in the pantheon of “great” cases — alongside Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland and Brown v. Bd. of Education — has been assured of immortality in the annals of constitutional jurisprudence. The Steel Seizure Case, like the Pentagon Papers Case and the Watergate Tapes Case, was suffused with richly textured historic dimensions. It triggered high political drama and pitched conflict, generated great tides of public opinion and plunged the Supreme Court into the white-hot cauldron of decision-making responsibility in which it faced issues of surpassing importance to the nation, including the fundamental question of the president’s authority, if any, to meet an emergency in the absence of statutory authority.

When measured against Youngstown, virtually all other separation of powers cases pale in significance. The case featured the most thorough exploration of presidential powers in the history of the Republic, and it constituted the most important judicial commentary in the 20th Century on the limits of those powers. It represented as well, one of the rare occasions when the Court has rebuked a presidential act in wartime. As Justice John Paul Stevens remarked in Clinton v. Jones (1997), another decision that repudiated a presidential assertion of power, Youngstown stood as “the most dramatic example” of the Court’s authority to review the legality of an executive action, for in the end it “struck a blow for the separation of powers” and reaffirmed the principle of presidential subordination to the rule of law.

As if all that were not enough to exalt the great importance of Youngstown, its essential question — whether the president possesses inherent authority to act in the absence of law, or in conflict with it, to resolve an emergency — encompassed several other claims of presidential power in historically contentious areas of constitutional law. It raised, for example, the question of inherent presidential authority in foreign affairs and war making and claims of executive privilege, secrecy and immunity in domestic matters.

It is doubtful that anyone could have seen the emergence of a landmark case in President Truman’s announcement on April 8, 1952, that he had issued that day Executive Order No. 10340 directing Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize the steel industry for the purpose of averting a nationwide strike, which he feared would jeopardize the United States’ prosecution of its war in Korea as well as other foreign policy and national security interests in Europe.

In a national radio and television address, President Truman grounded his seizure order in the authority vested in him by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, including his role as “Commander in Chief of the armed forces.” Despite his reference to the laws of the United States, Truman acted without statutory authority. In fact, on the following day, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Holmes Baldridge asserted in federal court in response to the steel companies’ motion for a temporary restraining order, that the seizure order was based, not on any statute, but on “the inherent executive powers of the President.”

Throughout the subsequent legal proceedings, the Truman Administration continued to advance what it variously referred to as the president’s “emergency,” “inherent,” and “residual” powers. On April 18, Truman held a press conference for members of the Society of Newspaper Editors. The New York Times ran a story on the conference in which it reported the president’s response to a reporter’s question:

“If it is proper under your inherent powers to seize the steel mills, can you, in your opinion, seize the newspapers and the radio stations?”

President Truman replied: “under the circumstances the President had to do whatever he believed was best for the country.”

Truman refused to elaborate. But White House sources said that his point was that he had power in an emergency, to take over “any portion of the business community acting to jeopardize all the people.”

The Truman Administration’s theory of inherent power was rebuked by a little -known U.S. Federal District Judge, David A. Pine, who declared the seizure order invalid and stated that he found nothing in the Constitution to support the assertion of an undefined, inherent power in the presidency.

By this juncture, newspaper editorials and letters-to-the editor, as well as members of Congress, including Democrats, were vigorously condemning President Truman’s claims and action. The nation’s attention turned to the Supreme Court, which prepared to hear an appeal on one of the greatest questions ever to come before it. We look at the Court’s ruling next week.