The Supreme Court appeared Monday to disapprove of three recess appointments by President Obama in a case that tests the limits of executive power.
Nearly every justice on the nation's highest adjudicating body questioned the constitutionality of his 2012 National Labor Relations Board picks, which bypassed Senate confirmation.
Chief Justice John Roberts also defended the Senate’s role in approving nominees as an important check on presidential power, contending, “They have an absolute right not to confirm nominees that the president submits.”
At issue is whether Obama overstepped his bounds by making the appointments during a limited “pro-forma” session of the Senate, as well as when exactly presidents can install judges and fill top federal vacancies without the upper chamber’s consent.
The White House said Monday it remained “confident” that the Supreme Court would uphold the appointments.
“In our view, we're confident that the courts will uphold the president's authority and look forward to resolution of this matter,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his daily briefing.
But most of the justices appeared receptive to arguments that the court should uphold a lower court’s ruling that the nominations were unconstitutional and should be invalidated.
Such a decision, the government’s attorney warned, could deprive Obama and future presidents of authority that was expressly granted by the nation’s framers and has been used since George Washington’s administration.
“That’s the end of the recess appointment power,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli said. “You write it out of the Constitution.”
A ruling that severely restricts the authority would “repudiate the legitimacy of thousands of presidential appointments,” he charged.
Justice Antonin Scalia indicated such a ruling would not, as some have suggested, call into question countless decisions made by judges and agency officials appointed under broader interpretations of presidential recess appointment power.
“You don’t really think we’re going to go back and rip out every [decision made],” he said.
In wading into the dispute, the court is expected for the first time to make clear the bounds of a tool dating back centuries.
Democratic and Republican presidents alike have taken advantage of the Constitution’s recess appointments clause, which empowers commanders in chief “to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.”
Obama, however, was the first president to appoint nominees when the Senate was in a pro-forma session.
The sessions, in which the upper chamber is briefly called to order by a handful of lawmakers and adjourned every few days, are meant to avoid a formal recess. Critics say they are merely an obstructionist Senate’s way of keeping presidents from filling crucial vacancies.
Obama, in filling the NLRB posts, tested the validity of the pro-forma sessions.
Noel Canning, head of an Oregon-based soft drink bottling and distribution company, who is unhappy with one of the labor board’s subsequent decisions, challenged the appointments as unconstitutional.
In January of last year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the firm, concluding that the president may only make recess appointments when the Senate is in recess between numbered sessions of Congress, and only then if a vacancy occurred in that same time period.
Under the narrow ruling, more than 300 appointments since 1981 would not have been authorized, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The Obama administration’s case hinges on winning three points, according to Georgetown University Law Center’s Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, who is arguing against the government.
First, it must convince the justices that presidents may make appointments during regular recesses and not, as the appeals court ruled, only during the breaks between numbered sessions on Congress.
Next, the court must agree that the appointments may include the filling of vacancies that existed before the recess began, not just those that occurred during a recess.
Finally, it must conclude that the pro-forma sessions do not count as formal sessions of Congress.
The court’s ruling, expected by June, will likely cement the contours of the recess appointment powers.
Also hanging in the balance are hundreds of NLRB decisions that would have to be revisited if the lower court’s opinion is upheld.
However, attorneys opposing the government’s case downplayed the implications, noting that other legal mechanisms, including a six-year statute of limitations on agency actions, would keep vast numbers of decisions from being thrown into limbo.
Among them is attorney Miguel Estrada, arguing on behalf of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown President Obama should curb mass incarceration with clemency MORE (R-Ky.), who intervened in the case and was present among the crowd packed into the court for the closely watched arguments.
Estrada brushed aside suggestions that a decision upholding the D.C. Circuit decision would lead to a “parade of horribles” across the federal bureaucracy.
“There will be no parade, and there will be no horribles,” Estrada told the court.