Youngstown Tube and Sheet Co. v. Sawyer

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Youngstown Tube and Sheet Co. v. Sawyer
343 U.S. 579
Decided: June 2, 1952

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer 343 U.S. 579 (1952) was a Supreme Court case which probed the limits of the Executive's control over the homeland in a time of war. The three-part structural test used by Justice Robert H. JacksonWikipedia is still used by the Court today, and is a successful formulation of doctrine used by the Court even in the centuries 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 Sandra Day 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).

Notes & Subsequent History[edit]

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 argued 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] A grain of salt is in order in considering their argument, though, inasmuch as they appear to agree with the court's holding in favor of the constitutionality of imprisonment on the basis of race with no semblance of judicial process in Korematsu.

Justice Felix FrankfurterWikipedia 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 Benjamin N. Cardozo,Wikipedia 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).