Unanimous Supreme Court Slaps Down President Obama on Recess Appointments, Should’ve Gone Further

For the 12th time since January 2012, the Obama Justice Department has lost unanimously at the Supreme Court. This time it was over recess appointments, with all justices agreeing with that the Senate gets to determine when it’s not in session – which triggers the president’s power to appoint federal officials without Senate confirmation. (Indeed, that’s what we argued in the brief we filed). And that’s no surprise: based on oral argument, everyone was expecting the government to lose NLRB v. Noel Canning and lose big. For example, my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz predicted a unanimous ruling at a Cato debate in January.

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom about a narrow ruling was also proven correct. The only “rule” that emerges from Justice Breyer’s controlling opinion is that a three-day recess, the longest the Senate can adjourn without the House’s consent, isn’t long enough to enable recess appointments. That’s a very pragmatic decision and seems to confirm executive practice prior to recent years. It also happens to lack any connection to constitutional text (as Justice Scalia points out for four justices in concurrence), whose best reading indicates that only recesses between Senate sessions – not when, e.g., the Senate takes two weeks off around Christmas – count for purposes of activating the recess-appointment power. Moreover, that power is only textually justified to fill vacancies that arise during the recess itself, not for openings that the president didn’t happen to fill while the Senate was sitting. In other words, Justice Breyer’s unprincipled opinion, while limiting recent presidential practice, cements a much more expansive reading of that power than the Constitution allows. For practical purposes, we’ll see many more “pro forma” Senate sessions and also the empowerment of those who control the House – because, again, the Senate can’t recess without the House’s consent. Speaker Boehner, call your office.

To be sure, this ruling is a strong rebuke to this administration in this case, but the most that can be said for it more broadly is what Justice Scalia did in reading his concurrence from the bench this morning: “The Court’s decision will be cited in diverse contexts, including those presently unimagined, and will have the effect of aggrandizing the Presidency beyond its constitutional bounds and undermining respect for the separation of powers.”