On June 26, the Supreme Court rejected the federal government’s challenge to a January 2013 decision by the D.C. Circuit that appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by President Obama in January 2012 during a purported Senate recess were unconstitutional. NLRB V. Noel Canning, No. 12-1281, 2014 WL 2882090 (U.S. Jun. 26, 2014). A five-member majority of the Court held that Presidents are permitted to exercise authority under the Recess Appointments Clause to fill a vacancy during both intra-session and inter-session recesses of sufficient length, and that such appointments may fill vacancies that arose prior to or during the recess.
The Court determined that the phrase “recess of the Senate” is ambiguous, and that based on the functional definition derived from the historical practice of past presidents and the Senate, it is meant to cover both types of recesses. Further, the court held that although the Clause does not indicate how long a recess must be before a president may act, historical practice suggests that a recess less than 10 days is presumptively too short. The Court did not foreclose the possibility, however, that appointments during recesses of less than 10 days may be permissible in unusual circumstances. The Court also validated the Senate’s practice of using pro forma sessions to avoid recess appointments, holding the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided it retains capacity to conduct business. Because the Senate was in session during its periodic pro forma sessions, and because the recess appointments at issue were made during a three-day recess between such sessions, the appointments were invalid.
A minority of the Court concurred in the judgment, but endorsed a narrower reading of the President’s authority to make recess appointments and the Senate’s ability to avoid triggering the President’s recess-appointment power. Writing for that minority, Justice Scalia explained that the plain constitutional text limits the President’s recess appointment power to filling vacancies that first arise during the recess. The minority reading of the Clause also limits the President’s recess appointment power to recesses between legislative sessions, and not intra-session ones. CFPB Director Richard Cordray was appointed in the same manner and on the same day as the NLRB members whose appointments were at issue in this case, but was subsequently re-nominated and confirmed for the position. He later ratified CFPB actions taken during the period he served as a recess appointee.