This morning’s oral argument couldn’t have gone any better for those challenging President Obama’s recess appointments (see previous commentary and Cato’s brief for background on NLRB v. Noel Canning). Not only were Justices Scalia and Alito sticklers for constitutional text and structure, but the more liberal justices joined in to express extreme skepticism about the government’s theories. Justice Kagan pointed out that modern presidents don’t face congressional absences—the reason for the president’s power to appoint federal officials without the Senate’s “advice and consent”—but merely congressional “intransigence.” And the Recess Appointments Clause doesn’t exist to solve those kinds of political problems, noted Justice Breyer. Justice Breyer also pointed out that, if you follow the government’s argument that so-called “pro forma” Senate sessions don’t count, then the Senate repeatedly violates the Constitution by not having a “actual” sessions on January 3 (as the 20th Amendment requires) and by recessing for more than three days without the House’s consent (as Article I, Section 5 requires).
Solicitor General Verrilli’s suggestion that the Senate has to be engaging in business to deny the president the recess-appointments power didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. As Justice Kagan put it, any such test can be easily evaded by a clever Senate (that could name post offices by unanimous consent, for example, or, in Chief Justice Roberts’s example, note in the Senate Journal for “pro forma” sessions that “no business is anticipated to be [rather than will be] conducted”). Justice Kennedy said that he was “in search of a limiting principle” to the government’s position—so as not to simply give the president sole discretion to determine when the Senate is or isn’t in recess. Justice Kagan was left asking both sides how the Court should rule given that the presidential practice—whose history prior to the Truman administration the parties dispute—seemed to so clearly contradict the constitutional text and structure.
And indeed that is the question: If it’s true, as an overwhelming majority of the justices seemed to think, that the president was only supposed to have the power to make recess appointments during intersession recesses, and only for vacancies that arose during such recesses, what does it mean that this correct interpretation has never been followed? The challengers had several ready answers: (1) The Court hasn’t hesitated to make significant rulings upsetting existing practice based on separation-of-powers concerns (for example regarding the authority of criminal sentencing guidelines); (2) Past nominations won’t be unduly disturbed because of various finality rules, statutes of limitation, and agencies’ ability to ratify past decisions; (3) Given the changed modern context, with Congress in session for much longer periods and senators able to fly back to Washington on a moment’s notice, recess appointments are less important; and (4) Regardless of the correct interpretation of the recess-appointments power, it is the Senate that gets to determine when it’s in session or in recess, not the president.
While it’s unclear how exactly the Supreme Court will write its opinion in this case and where its focus will lie, it’ll be a real shock if the government wins this case. The justices recognized that the battle over executive and judicial nominations is a political one and that in cases of impasse, the Framers designed a system encouraging either political compromise or a final decision by the voters—not endless constitutional brinksmanship.