While the rulings in Fisher and Windsor justifiably garnered the most attention this week, it is important to note an important but little discussed decision to accept a case. 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. Then 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). The case accepted for review is Noel Canning v. NLRB, No. 12-1115 (D.C. Cir. 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.
The Supreme Court stepped into an important constitutional dispute Monday between President Obama and congressional Republicans over the chief executive’s power to make recess appointments.
The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling that found Obama violated the Constitution when he bypassed the Senate last year to appoint three members of the National Labor Relations Board.
The high court case is the latest chapter in the partisan political wrangling between GOP lawmakers and Obama over appointments to the labor board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans want to rein in both agencies’ powers.
The Constitution gives the president the power to make temporary appointments to fill positions that otherwise require confirmation by the Senate, but only when the Senate is in recess.
At issue for the Supreme Court: What constitutes a congressional recess and does it matter when a vacancy occurs?
George Washington was the first president to make a recess appointment and Obama’s predecessors back to Ronald Reagan made significantly more such appointments than has Obama. On three earlier occasions, federal appeals courts upheld the appointments.
But the nature of the president’s actions, during brief Senate breaks that Congress explicitly said were not formal recesses, is driving the current legal controversy.
The case stems from Obama’s decision to fill the three NLRB vacancies on Jan. 4, 2012, with Congress on an extended holiday break. At the same time, however, the Senate held brief, pro forma sessions every few days as part of the Republicans’ explicit strategy of keeping Obama from filling vacancies through recess appointments. The president also used a recess appointment to install Richard Cordray as head of the financial protection agency, which the GOP had blocked for a year and a half.
Businesses and trade groups quickly went to court to challenge decisions made by the NLRB. Noel Canning, a Washington state bottling company, claimed an NLRB decision against it was not valid because the board members were not properly appointed and that the board did not have enough members to do business without the improperly appointed officials.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed in a sweeping ruling. A panel composed of three Republican appointees said that the only congressional break that counts as a recess is the one that occurs between formal year-long sessions of Congress. Two of the three judges also said that only positions that come open during a congressional recess can be filled through a recess appointment. The court did not address the issue of how short a break can count as a recess.
If it stands, the ruling could invalidate hundreds of board decisions, and call into question the legitimacy of regulations issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, many of which affect the mortgage industry.
The NLRB also would effectively be shut down as a ruling against the administration would leave the board with only one member, and it needs three to conduct business.
Obama used the recess appointment to install Deputy Labor Secretary Sharon Block, union lawyer Richard Griffin and NLRB counsel Terence Flynn to fill vacancies on the labor board, giving it a full contingent for the first time in more than a year. Block and Griffin are Democrats, while Flynn is a Republican. Flynn stepped down from the board last year.
The parties’ roles were reversed when a Republican President George W. Bush was in the White House and Democrats controlled the Senate in the final two years of Bush’s presidency. Then, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid employed the same tactic of convening the Senate every few days to keep Bush from filling vacancies through recess appointments. Unlike Obama, Bush did not press the issue.
Obama has made relatively few recess appointments, 32 in his four-plus years in office, according to the Congressional Research Service. Bush made 171 such appointments and President Bill Clinton filled 139 posts that way in their eight years in office, the research service said.
Since the Noel Canning ruling, a second appeals court also has weighed in against the administration. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said in a 2-1 decision that recess appointments can be made only between sessions of the Senate, not any time the Senate is away on a break. That case dealt with an earlier Obama appointee to the NLRB, whose nomination was blocked by the Senate.
Canning could represent a long overdue opportunity for the Court to alter the trend toward judicial avoidance in such disputes — a trend interrupted by the D.C. and Third Circuit decisions.