On the eve of a labor strike, the President issued an order directing the government to possess and operate most of the steel mills in the country.
The President does not have Constitutional authority to order the government to possess and operate private steel mills.
In 1951, the President referred a dispute between steel workers and their employing companies to the Federal Wage Stabilization Board, following failed bargaining efforts between the employees and the companies over their new collective bargaining agreements. The Board’s report did not yield a settlement, and the steel employees gave notice of a nation-wide strike. Because steel was important to building war materials, the President issued an order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of most of the steel mills in the country and keep them operating. The Secretary issued possessory orders over the steel mills, and the companies brought suit against him in District Court.
Did the President have the power to direct the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate most of the nation’s steel mills under the Constitution?
No, the President did not have the power to direct the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate most of the nation’s steel mills under the Constitution.
Justice Vinson argued that the President does have the power to deal with national emergencies in the way he did here.
The Supreme Court held that if the President had the authority to issue the order, it would derive from an act of Congress or the Constitution. There was no act of Congress granting the authority, so the power had to derive from the Constitution. The President argued that this power was implied from the aggregate of the presidential powers granted by the Constitution, particularly under Article II, which grants the president the power to execute the law, and to be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.
The Supreme Court held that the order was not a proper exercise of the President’s military powers Commander in Chief, because taking possession of private property in the interest in allowing production to continue is a job for lawmakers, not the military.
The Supreme Court also held that the order was not sustainable under the Constitutional provisions granting the president executive power, because it was not executive in nature, but legislative.