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Woods v. Cloyd W. Miller Co.

Significance

The war power, a vague power that enables Congress to establish special rules and regulations during times of war, extends beyond the time frame of actual declaration of war into the time after hostilities cease that is still heavily affected by the cost of the war. This extends into the regulation of housing rental control that had been enacted during World War II to offset the necessary slowing and halting of commercial construction of housing to free materials for the war effort.

The Housing and Rent Act became effective 1 July 1947, and the following day Tighe Woods demanded of his tenants increases of 40 percent and 60 percent for rental accommodations in the Cleveland Defense-Rental Area, an admitted violation of the act.

The district court, in Woods v. Cloyd W. Miller Co. was of the view that the authority of Congress to regulate rents by virtue of the war power ended with the Presidential Proclamation terminating hostilities on 31 December 1946. It also concluded that even if the war power continues, Congress did not act under it because it did not say so, and only if Congress says so, or enacts provisions so implying, can it be held that Congress intended to exercise such power. The district court expressed the further view that rent control is not within the war power because "the emergency created by housing shortage came into existence before the war." It also concluded that the act in effect provides "low rentals for certain groups without taking the property or compensating the owner in any way."

Woods sued to enjoin violations of Title II of the Housing and Rent Act of 1947. The district court denied a permanent injunction on the grounds that the act was unconstitutional. The decision was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court concluded, in the first place, that the war power sustained the legislation. The war power includes the power "to remedy the evils which have arisen from its rise and progress" and continues for the duration of that emergency. Whatever may be the consequences when war is officially terminated, the war power does not necessarily end with the cessation of hostilities.

The constitutional validity of the legislation followed a fortiori from past cases. The legislative history of the act made abundantly clear that the deficit in housing which in considerable measure was caused by heavy demobilization of veterans and by the cessation or reduction in residential construction during the period of hostilities due to allocation of building materials to military projects had not yet been eliminated. Since the war effort contributed heavily to that deficit, Congress has power even after cessation of hostilities to act to control the forces that a short supply of the needed article created.

The Court also recognized that the force of the effects of war under modern conditions may be felt in the economy for years and years, and that if the war power can be used in days of peace to treat all the wounds which war inflicts on society, it may not only swallow up all other powers of Congress but largely obliterate the Ninth and Tenth Amendments as well. But the Court felt that there were no such implications in this decision. The Court was dealing only with the consequences of a housing deficit greatly intensified during the period of hostilities by the war effort.

The Court found that under the act, the Housing Expediter was authorized to remove the rent controls in any defense-rental area if in their judgment the need no longer exists by reason of new construction or satisfaction of demand in other ways. The Court rejected the argument that the act, by its exemption of certain classes of housing accommodations, violated the Fifth Amendment. Congress did not need to control all rents or none. It can select those areas or those classes of property where the need seems the greatest.

Justice Jackson concurred in the opinion, but uttered misgivings about the concept of war power. He stated the belief that the government asserts no constitutional basis for the legislation other than the vague, undefined, and undefinable "war power." It is the most dangerous power to free government, usually invoked in haste and excitement when calm legislative consideration of constitutional limitation is difficult. The constitutional basis of such a power should be scrutinized with care, particularly when the war power is invoked to do things to the liberties of people, or to their property or economy that only indirectly affect conduct of the war and do not relate to the management of the war itself.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Woods v. Cloyd W. Miller Co. - Significance, Solicitor General