“Biggest rebuke to any president since Watergate’: Supreme Court strikes down Obama’s ‘illegal’ recess appointments – ruling he overstepped his authority
- Obama appointed three people to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 while the U.S. Senate was taking a break from regular business
- The Senate had dragged its feet on the labor board nominees so Obama made ‘recess appointments,’ declaring that the Senate was in recess
- The Senate insisted that it was not officially in recess since it convened in ‘pro forma’ sessions every three days
- The Supreme Court agreed Thursday, saying the White House can’t unilaterally decide when the Senate is in ‘recess’
The Supreme Court on Thursday limited the president’s power to fill high-level vacancies with temporary appointments, ruling in favor of Senate Republicans in their partisan clash with President Barack Obama.
The high court’s first-ever case involving the Constitution’s recess appointments clause ended in a unanimous decision holding that Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 without Senate confirmation were illegal.
Obama invoked the Constitution’s provision giving the president the power to make temporary appointments when the Senate is in recess.
Problem is, the court said, the Senate was not actually in a formal recess when Obama acted.
Closely watched decision: The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that presidents can’t trump the U.S. Senate and make ‘recess appointments’ when legislators insist they’re not in recess
Obama had argued that the Senate was on an extended holiday break and that the brief sessions it held every three days — what lawmakers call “pro forma” — were a sham that was intended to prevent him from filling seats on the NLRB.
The justices rejected that argument Wednesday.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said Thursday on the Senate floor that Obama clearly overstepped his constitutional authority.
‘No president in history had ever attempted to make recess appointments when the Senate said it was in session. … These illegal appointments represent just one of the important areas where President Obama has disregarded the law with his philosophy of “the ends justify the means”,’ Grassley said.
‘We should all be thankful the Supreme Court has reined in this kind of lawlessness on the part of this administration.’
Grassley declared that Thursday’s ruling is ‘the Supreme Court’s biggest rebuke to any president since 1974, when it ordered President Nixon to produce the Watergate tapes.’
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander piled on, insisting that ‘the Constitution gives the Senate powers the executive branch cannot usurp.’
‘Our founders wanted a President, not a king,’ he blasted, ‘and our Constitution is written to protect against precisely the kind of overreach this president demonstrated.’
Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion that a congressional break has to last at least 10 days to be considered a recess under the Constitution.
Neither house of Congress can take more than a three-day break without the consent of the other.
The issue of recess appointments receded in importance after the Senate’s Democratic majority changed the rules to make it harder for Republicans to block confirmation of most Obama appointees.
But the ruling’s impact may be keenly felt by the White House next year if Republicans capture control of the Senate in the November election. The potential importance of the ruling lies in the Senate’s ability to block the confirmation of judges and the leaders of independent agencies like the NLRB. A federal law gives the president the power to appoint acting heads of Cabinet-level departments to keep the government running.
Still, the outcome was the least significant loss possible for the administration. The justices, by a 5-4 vote, rejected a sweeping lower court ruling against the administration that would have made it virtually impossible for any future president to make recess appointments.
The lower court held that the only recess recognized by the Constitution is the once-a-year break between sessions of Congress. It also said that only vacancies that arise in that recess could be filled. So the high court has left open the possibility that a president, with a compliant Congress, could make recess appointments in the future.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, said he would have upheld the lower court’s reasoning. He said Thursday’s decision means “the abolition of the Constitution’s limits on the recess-appointment power.”
A recess appointment can last no more than two years. Recess appointees who subsequently won Senate confirmation include Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, two current NLRB members and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton is among recess appointees who left office because they could not win a Senate vote.
The case challenging the appointments was brought by Noel Canning, a soft drink bottling company in Yakima, Washington. The 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.
Senator Chuck Grassley said Obama’s appointments were ‘illegal,’ and claimed Thursday’s decision was ‘the Supreme Courts? biggest rebuke to any President since 1974, when it ordered President Nixon to produce the Watergate tapes’
Noel Canning prevailed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and two other appeals courts also had ruled against recess appointments.
Obama has made relatively few recess appointments, 32 in his four-plus years in office, according to the Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush made 171 such appointments over two terms and President Bill Clinton filled 139 posts that way in his eight years in office, the research service said.
But Obama was the first president to try to make recess appointments when Congress explicitly said it was not in recess. The Constitution requires that the Senate and House must get the other’s consent for a break lasting longer than three days. At the end of 2011, the Republican-controlled House would not give the Democratic-led Senate permission for a longer break.
The partisan roles were reversed during Bush’s presidency, when Senate Democrats sought ways to prevent the president from making recess appointments.
In fact, the very basis on which the justices decided the case — that the Senate can use extremely brief sessions to avoid a formal recess — was a tactic devised by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to frustrate Bush.