The Washington Post

Supreme Court to weigh in on Obama’s recess appointments

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will decide next term whether President Obama exceeded his constitutional authority by making appointments while the Senate was on break last year.

The case at hand involves Obama’s appointment of three members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but the broader issue concerns the power that presidents throughout history have used to fill their administrations in the face of Senate opposition and inaction.

The justices will review a broad ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that upset decades of understanding about the president’s recess appointment power. The court ruled that presidents may make recess appointments only between sessions of the Senate — they generally come at the end of each year — and not when senators take an intra-session break.

Recent presidents have made appointments during both kinds of recesses.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said in a petition to the Supreme Court that the appeals court’s reading of the clause would “drastically curtail the scope of the president’s authority.”

In addition, the Supreme Court will consider a narrower question presented by the specifics of Obama’s January 2012 appointments: whether the president can make appointments when the Senate is holding pro forma sessions designed to thwart such action.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that he was “confident” that the court will uphold Obama’s appointments and that “the issue here is about the president having the authority that all of his predecessors have had to make these recess appointments.”

Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the court’s decision to hear the case. “We warned last year that by appointing these members to the NLRB in such a controversial fashion, a cloud of uncertainty covered the agency and its work,” he said.

Obama has used the recess appointments power fairly modestly compared with recent predecessors. But he went where no other president had gone in his appointment of the three NLRB members and his appointment of Richard Cordray to head the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Senators had gone home, but the Senate was holding pro forma sessions by convening with one senator every three days.

The White House justified appointing the NLRB members by reasoning that the Senate actually was in recess because it was not available to fulfill its advice-and-consent role by conducting business.

A challenge brought by a Pepsi bottler in the state of Washington and backed by the U.S. Chamber went to the D.C. Circuit. But in January, the unanimous panel skipped past the question of pro forma sessions for a far broader ruling.

D.C. Circuit Judge David B. Sentelle wrote that the administration’s interpretation of when recess appointments may be made would give the president “free rein to appoint his desired nominees at any time he pleases, whether that time be a weekend, lunch, or even when the Senate is in session and he is merely displeased with its inaction.”

The ruling interpreted the Constitution’s directive that “the president shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate” to apply only between sessions of the Senate, not merely when the senators are on a break, even an extended one.

The panel gave great weight to the framers’ use of “the recess” rather than “a recess.”

In addition, the panel also voted 2 to 1 that the phrase “vacancies that may happen” means only those openings that arise during the recess, not those that already exist when the recess occurs.

The ruling cast doubt on hundreds of decisions the NLRB has made in the past year, including the enforcement of collective-bargaining agreements and rulings on the rights of workers to use social media.

The government and the challengers asked the Supreme Court to take the case to settle differing interpretations of the recess appointments clause.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed this year that recess appointments could come only between sessions of the Senate.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit came out the other way in 2005, and the Supreme Court at the time declined to review the decision.

When the constitutional clause was written, it could take weeks for senators to get to the Capitol. But partisan gridlock has made the recess appointment an important modern tool for presidents who are trying to get their nominees past a recalcitrant Senate.

In asking the justices to take the case, Verrilli said presidents have made more than 500 appointments during inter-session recesses, including “three Cabinet secretaries, five Court of Appeals judges, 10 District Court judges, a director of central intelligence, a chairman of the Federal Reserve, numerous members of multi-member boards and holders of a variety of other critical government posts.”

The pro forma sessions were pioneered by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to thwart President George W. Bush’s nominees. Republican senators have used them during Obama’s terms in office and have filed a brief with the court saying justices should also consider the question of pro forma sessions that the D.C. Circuit bypassed.

“The president’s claimed authority to name principal federal officers without the Senate’s consent while the chamber has declared itself in session has no basis in the Constitution,” said the brief filed by all Republican senators.

The case is National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.