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  • Writer's pictureTommy Sangchompuphen

Memorial Day and the Law: Understanding War Powers

As we observe Memorial Day, a time to honor those who have served and sacrificed for our country, let’s explore the constitutional dynamics of war powers—an area deeply connected to the reasons many have served. This post focuses on the division of war powers between Congress and the President.

The U.S. Constitution strategically allocates military authority to prevent unilateral decisions that could lead the nation into unnecessary conflicts. While the President acts as the Commander in Chief, overseeing military operations, Congress holds the exclusive power to declare war, raise and support armies, provide for and maintain a navy, make rules for the government and regulation of the armed forces, and organize, arm, discipline, and call up the militia.

This structure not only checks and balances executive power but also encapsulates the gravity and deliberation with which decisions about war and peace are made—reflective of the sacrifices we commemorate on Memorial Day.

Several U.S. Supreme Court cases have shaped the understanding and application of war powers. Here are a couple:

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. SawyerLinks to an external site. (1952): This landmark case highlights the limitations on presidential power in times of war. In this case, the Court held that President Truman could not seize steel mills to avert a strike during the Korean War without Congressional authorization, reinforcing the principle that even during wartime, presidential powers are not absolute.

Woods v. Cloyd W. Miller Co.Links to an external site. (1948): In this case, the Court upheld the continuation of wartime rent controls into the post-war period under the War Powers Acts, demonstrating how Congress can extend its influence into the post-conflict phase of war powers execution.

Questions related to war powers on the bar exam typically test an examinee’s understanding of the separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of government. Examinees might be asked to analyze hypothetical scenarios where the actions of the President or Congress are challenged based on constitutional grounds. For instance, a question might involve the President deploying troops without Congressional approval and require the examinee to discuss the potential constitutional conflicts that arise from such an action. 


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