Youngstown Steel & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) is an interesting constitutional law case. It deals with separation of powers in government. Also, It deals with the doctrine of executive power. Plus, it introduced the zones test. When it comes to the powers of presidents, this case sets precedent.
The facts of Youngstown Steel & Tube Co. v. sawyer are simple. During the Korea war in 1950, President Harry Truman signed an executive order to seize the Youngstown Steel mill in Ohio. The president claimed he needed it for the war effort. However, the steel mill was private property.
Youngstown was a 5-2 decision with five justices in majority and two in dissent. Youngstown held: “The President did not have the inherent authority to seize private property in the absence of either specifically enumerated authority under Article Two of the Constitution or statutory authority conferred on him by Congress. DC District Court affirmed.” This formed the opinion of the case.
Ultimately, Youngstown was about the executive power doctrine. Basically, what does executive power mean as outlined in article two of the constitution. Specifically, what are the limits to this executive power limiting the president when carrying out his office.
Youngstown’s famous for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s zones test. First, maximum authority exists when Congress supports the president; that is, a presumption of constitutionally exists and the court defers to the government. Second, there is a zone of twilight when Congress is silent about supporting the president. Third, there is a lowest ebb when the president acts on his own authority without congressional support; essentially, a presumption of liberty is where the individual wins, so the court will scrutinize government.
In his majority opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter talked about a “gloss” forming on the meaning of the Constitution. He said this gloss or the long standing practices of the Executive can give new meaning to the Constitution. Justice Frankfurter talked about Lincoln’s seizure of the railways, and he discussed some seizures of Roosevelt; however, he felt these were not long standing practices or traditions. Therefore, Justice Frankfurter made it clear Truman broke the law since there was no long standing practices or traditions by the Executive to seize property.
All Supreme Justices cite the Youngstown zones test when being confirmed for the Supreme Court. In the past, John Roberts, Ruth Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomeyer, Elena Kegan, as well as others have cited it from memory. It’s the definitive test to know when being selected to sit on the Supreme Court.