I have previously testified and written about President Barack Obama’s use of recess appointments, which I viewed as flagrantly unconstitutional. Recently, the D.C. Circuit agreed with that view and found that the Obama Administration had violated the recess appointment powers. Now a second appellate court has joined that view, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. I have two law review articles coming out on these appointments and more broadly the abuse of recess appointment powers in modern presidencies. See Jonathan Turley, Recess Appointments in the Age of Regulation, 93 Boston University Law Review ___ (2013) and Jonathan Turley, Constitutional Adverse Possession: Recess Appointments and the Role of Historical Practice in Constitutional Interpretation, 2103 Wisconsin Law Review ___ (2013)
A year ago, I testified in Congress that the recess appointments of President Barack Obama were unconstitutional. Those four appointments by President Obama included Richard Cordray, who had been denied confirmation to a consumer protection board in a Republican filibuster. While I liked Cordray, I testified that the appointments were in my opinion clearly unconstitutional. The D.C. Circuit has now agreed with that view and the panel unanimously ruled that Obama violated the Constitution with his circumvention of Congress.
In my prior testimony, I discussed how Obama — and by extension the Office of Legal Counsel — violated both the text and the purpose of the recess appointments clause. It was an interesting hearing with other experts testifying that the appointments were constitutional — supported by the January 6, 2012 opinion of Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz and the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). I was very critical of that opinion.
Throughout history, the interpretation of this Recess Appointments Clause has evolved to the increasing benefit of the Executive Branch – allowing the Clause to be used to circumvent congressional opposition. Indeed, the debate today is generally confined to the question of what technically constitutes a “recess” for the purposes of the Clause, treating as settled the question of whether the Clause can be used to fill a position that the Senate has chosen to leave vacant. In my view, the Clause is now routinely used not only for an unintended purpose but a purpose that is inimical to core values in our constitutional system. I have long favored the original interpretation of the Clause: that it applies only to vacancies occurring during a recess. This interpretation is truer to the Constitution and would avoid many of the controversies of modern times. I readily admit that I am in the minority on that view, but I discuss the original and later interpretations to demonstrate how far we have moved from the plain meaning of the Clause. Frankly, I believe that our system would be far better off under the original meaning of the Clause, which would have avoided many of the controversies of modern times.
In a 2-1 panel decision, the Third Circuit is different in some respects from the earlier D.C. Circuit opinion in Noel Canning v. NLRB. It was narrower in rejecting “intrasession” appointments — recesses during a given session of Congress. However, it did not address pre-existing recesses or contain the broader historical analysis of the D.C. Circuit. It also rejects the clarity in the language of the Clause: “In short, the natural meaning of recess does not help us decide between intersession breaks and intrasession breaks of a fixed duration, but the relevant context does undermine the Board‘s current position.”
The opinion was written by Judge D. Brooks Smith and the dissent came from Judge Joseph. A Greenaway Jr. Greenaway objects that “The Majority attempts to displace the absurdity of its holding by showing that my standard also yields absurd results.”
An empty office is an empty office. It makes no sense that the Framers would have differentiated between intrasession and intersession recesses in effectuating the purpose of the Recess Appointments Clause. See Evans, 387 F.3d at 1226 (“The purpose of the Clause is no less satisfied during an intrasession recess than during a recess of potentially even shorter duration that comes as an intersession break.”). The atrophy of agencies and other offices caused by the Senate‟s absence did not then, and does not now, depend on whether the Senate is unavailable due to an intersession recess or intrasession recess — all that matters is the length of time that the Senate is away from its usual business, unable to provide advice and consent, while vacancies persist.
Both opinions are worthy of reading and present compelling arguments, though I obviously agree with the majority. My own analysis goes further than both the D.C. Circuit and the Third Circuit.
Here is the decision: Third-Circuit-2013.5.16-Decision-Vacating-NLRB-Decision