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Constitution Daily

The Youngstown Case: Three Approaches to Interpreting Presidential Power

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision that defined the limits of presidential power. Understanding why the justices reigned in the president in 1952, and how they interpreted the Constitution in doing so, helps us understand the different ways of reading the Constitution today.

During the Korean War, President Harry Truman ordered his administration to seize most of the nation’s steel mills, to prevent labor strikes from shutting down mills that were producing a crucial national security material. In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, also known as the Steel Seizure Case, a 6-3 Supreme Court said that the Truman administration’s seizure of the steel mills was unconstitutional.

Today, judges and scholars across the spectrum recognize Youngstown as a watershed moment in limiting presidential power, and the decision continues to be cited by the Supreme Court. Most recently, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito pointed to the precedent in the June 2022 Biden v. Texas case, which upheld the Biden administration’s decision to end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The Youngstown case is also notable, however, for illustrating three different methodologies of constitutional interpretation, or the theories used by justices to decide constitutional questions.

In particular, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson wrote three separate opinions reaching the same result—that the Truman administration’s seizure was unconstitutional—but each justice used a different approach: Justice Black used textualism; Justice Frankfurter cited tradition; and Justice Jackson focused on structural arguments.

Textualism requires a judge to focus on the plain meaning of the words of a constitutional provision (often with a focus on the common understanding of the provision’s words at the time of its enactment, as in original meaning originalism), and not to look to the original intent, purpose, or legislative history for help. A tradition-oriented judge looks to any relevant laws, customs, and practices established after the provision was ratified. And in a structural interpretation, a judge infers rules about the relationships between institutions (for example, the separation of powers) from the outlines of the Constitution.

Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the majority opinion in Youngstown, was a devoted textualist. For Black, Truman’s seizure could be authorized by only two sources, both textual: either “an act of Congress,” or “some provision of the Constitution.”

No statute’s text authorized the president to seize the steel mills, Black wrote, and nothing in Article II—not the Vesting Clause, nor the Commander-in-Chief Clause, nor the Take Care Clause—could reasonably be read to grant the president the broad authority to seize private domestic property during wartime without Congress’s approval. “[T]he Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute,” Black wrote.

Justice Felix Frankfurter also believed Truman lacked the power to seize the steel mills. But while Black thought text alone could resolve the case, Frankfurter insisted that textual analysis had to be supplemented by analyzing tradition. In Frankfurter’s view, many constitutional questions required judges to look beyond the text, because textualism would often come up short; sometimes the text would be ambiguous on a constitutional question, and other times the text would be altogether silent.

In such cases, Frankfurter urged, judges should rely on tradition. In Youngstown, this meant asking whether there existed “a systematic, unbroken, executive practice” of seizing private domestic property in wartime. Frankfurter concluded that there was not, and so, like Black, he found Truman’s order unconstitutional.

Justice Robert Jackson took a third approach to Youngstown. A former U.S. Solicitor General and Attorney General, Jackson believed that to settle disputes about presidential power, the justices should look not just to text (as Black did) or tradition (Frankfurter), but also to the real-world dynamic interactions among the three branches of government—a methodology constitutional theorists like Charles Black and Phillip Bobbitt would later call structural argument.

Like Frankfurter, Jackson dismissed the notion of textualism as the end-all-be-all of constitutional methodologies. Judges could not discover the “actual art of governing under our Constitution” by reading “isolated clauses or even single Articles torn from context.” But unlike Frankfurter, Jackson thought the crucial question in presidential powers cases was whether Congress had supported, rejected, or remained silent about the executive action in question.

Jackson’s now-famous concurrence in the case offered a three-part framework for assessing claims of presidential overreach based on the level of congressional approval.

First, if a president acts with the “express or implied authorization of Congress,” Jackson reasoned, the president’s authority is “at its maximum,” and his action is presumptively constitutional.

Second, if a president acts in the face of congressional silence—what Jackson referred to as the “zone of twilight”—the contours of presidential power are uncertain. Judges have to decide such cases based on the “imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables”—in other words, as the situation demands.

Third, if a president acts in defiance of Congress, or when the executive action is “incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress,” the president’s power is “at its lowest ebb,” and his action is presumptively unconstitutional.

In the steel mill case, Congress had in the past considered and declined to authorize executive seizure of domestic property during wartime. Thus, Truman’s order fell into the third category, and since Article II could not be read to grant the president such authority, Jackson found Truman’s order unconstitutional.

Although Jackson himself called his framework “somewhat over-simplified,” his concurrence remains one of the most influential and widely cited opinions on the contours of presidential power today.

Not all the justices in Youngstown agreed with the majority. In dissent, Chief Justice Vinson argued that tradition actually supported Truman. During World War II, Vinson pointed out, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of an aviation plant and coal mines without congressional authorization. In the end, though, Vinson was outvoted.

In tough, complex cases, using different methodologies of constitutional interpretation can lead to different results. But in Youngstown, three different justices—Black, Frankfurter, and Jackson—used three different methodologies—textualism, tradition, and structure—to reach the same result: Truman’s seizure of the steel mills was invalid.




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