Background: From 1950 until 1953 the United States was involved in the Korean War. In order to keep inflation down President Truman did not impose price controls, instead he created a board who monitored price inflation, workers’ wages and sought to ensure labor disputes were avoided. The United Steelworkers union threatened a strike in April of 1952, once it became clear that the strike could not be averted President Truman issued an Executive Order on April 8, 1952. The order directed Secretary of Commerce, Charles Sawyer, to seize operation of the steel mills. The Secretary did so by nationalizing the steel mills and directing their presidents to operate them according to federal directions. President Truman justified the seizure as an act stemming from his broad constitutional power as the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The steel companies brought suit against the Secretary in a Federal District Court.
Supreme Court: The Court ruled that the seizure of the mills was not authorized by the Constitution or by any law of the United States. In fact, the congressional considerations evident and expressed in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 expressly rejected authorization for the government to seize property as a way to prevent work stoppage and settle labor disputes. Further, the President’s action was not able to be justified using his military power as the Commander in Chief and the power he sought to exercise was that of lawmaking, which is constitutionally vested with Congress alone. Jackson wrote a concurring opinion. He wrote that when determining whether the executive has authority there are three general circumstances. First, when the President acts with the express or implied authorization of Congress then the President’s authority is at its greatest. Second, in the absence of either a congressional grant or prohibition then the President acts in a zone of twilight. In this circumstance, Congress and the President may have concurrent authority. In this zone of twilight, an actual test on authority will be dependent on the events and the contemporary theory of law existing at the time. The third circumstance is when the President takes measures that go against the expressed will of Congress, his power is at its lowest. Jackson placed the action of President Truman in the third category making the order to seize the mills invalid.
Legacy: The three prong test set out in Jackson’s concurrence is widely used when considering the limits of presidential power. The case itself is the premier analytical framework in assessing presidential authority, especially in later cases like the Watergate scandal with President Nixon.
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