Emergency Power

The President of the United States possesses certain powers to act in emergency situations. Though such “emergency power” is not specifically expressed in the Constitution, the Executive Branch is designed to be able to act quickly in times of war or national emergency. Because emergency power is not specifically stated in the Constitution, its scope is somewhat limited, typically extending only to situations that compromise or threaten the safety or well-being of the public. To explore this concept, consider the following emergency power definition.

Definition of Emergency Power


  1. Power granted to or used by a public authority to meet emergency needs, such as in case of war or disaster.

Emergency Power Granted by the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution grants to various branches of the federal government specific authority or powers, referred to as “express powers.” Because it is impossible to predict every situation that may come up requiring action by the government, it has been held that the Constitution “implies” certain powers, including the presidential power to act without approval of Congress in the event of certain emergencies. It is believed that the framers of the Constitution intended this type of action, as the Executive Branch of the government was designed to be able to act much more quickly than Congress.

Presidential Use of Emergency Power

Throughout U.S. history, the Presidential use of emergency powers has justified a wide variety of emergency orders. Such Presidential use of emergency power has stepped in to avert or act in the face of everything from war to natural disasters, and even to avoid wide scale financial ruin.

Institution of Japanese Internment Camps

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the use of emergency power during World War II when he issued Executive Order 9066. The order demanded that all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast at the time of the order to be put into internment camps after Congress had declared war. Because war had been declared, which declaration can only be made by Congress, the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Korematsu v United States, that the Executive Order was correctly made in the interest of public safety.

Seizure of Private Steel Mills

Curing the Korean War, a labor strike slowed down production of steel, which in turn put a halt to production of much-needed equipment and weapons. In 1952, President Harry Truman called upon emergency power to seize private steel mills that were not producing enough steel, arguing that the United States could not successfully wage a war without sufficient materials to keep the military forces properly equipped.

In the case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v Sawyer, the Supreme Court ruled that no power of the Commander in Chief, nor emergency power, gave the president the authority to seize private property without approval of Congress.

Powers of War

Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and gives to the president the power to direct military forces accordingly once war has been declared. Section 8 also names the president as “Commander in Chief.” During times of conflict, Congress and the president are supposed to cooperate, but instances have occurred in which the president has used military forces without the consent of Congress. Such situations include the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm.

The use of emergency powers in these situations has brought about a great deal of controversy, as some politicians believe that, as Commander in Chief, the president has the authority to use the military even when Congress does not consent. Opponents believe that the powers of the president should be limited and that acting without Congressional approval is going too far.

States of Emergency

During states of emergency, such as natural disasters or periods of civil unrest, the government can use implied powers to formally declare a State of Emergency. Such a declaration allows suspension or change in functions of any branch of government, and gives the government the power to suspend certain rights or freedoms normally guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the United States, a local leader, such as a city mayor or state governor, has the power to declare a State of Emergency within their own jurisdiction. The U.S. President has the authority to declare a national State of Emergency in circumstances in which the country is faced with large-scale disaster or danger.

Powers under states of emergency are implied and largely discretionary, however the Constitution specifically states that the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus cannot be suspended unless the safety of the public is compromised during times of rebellion. Only Congress has the authority to suspend the Writ.

Abuse of Emergency Powers

Since emergency powers are not specifically outlined in the Constitution, there is always a risk that a president will abuse such powers. When this occurs however, the House of Representatives has the right to impeach the president, or charge him formally for the abuse of emergency powers. Once a president has been impeached by the House of Representatives, he stands trial before the Senate, which determines guilt or innocence. If the president is found guilty of the charges, he may be removed from office.

While two U.S. presidents have been impeached, none have been found guilty and convicted by the Senate, nor removed from office. In 1974, however, President Nixon resigned after the House of Representatives had begun impeachment proceedings. Most historians believe Nixon would have ultimately been convicted for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, and removed from office.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Consent – To approve, permit, or agree
  • Executive Branch – The branch of government that includes the President, the Vice President, and 15 cabinet departments.
  • Implied Powers – Powers granted to the government that are not specifically listed in the Constitution.
  • Writ of Habeas Corpus – A court order demanding an agency to deliver an imprisoned person to the court.