Wednesday, August 10, 2016
The D.C. Circuit yesterday rejected a constitutional challenge to Security and Exchange Commission Administrative Law Judges, ruling that SEC ALJs are not "officers" or "inferior officers" whose appointments need to meet the requirements of the Appointments Clause.
The court also rejected a broadside attack against the way the D.C. Circuit analyzes whether any ALJ (SEC or not) is subject to the Appointments Clause.
The petitioner's challenge was novel and sweeping. A ruling in its favor could have been quite significant, potentially threatening the authority of SEC ALJs, certain ALJs in other agencies, and possibly even ALJs across the board (at least insofar as their appointments don't satisfy the Appointments Clause). But the petitioner's novel claims ran up against circuit law. The ruling is thus a decisive win, if not a totally unpredictable one, for the government.
The case turned on whether SEC ALJs are "officers" (who, under Article II, require presidential nomination and advice and consent of the Senate), "inferior officers" (who, under Article II, may be appointed by the President alone, the courts, or the head of a department, depending on what Congress says), or just employees (who are not covered by the Appointments Clause). Under circuit law, the line between "inferior officers" and employees, in turn, depends on (1) the significance of the matters resolved by the officials, (2) the discretion they exercise, and (3) the finality of their decisions.
The court said that decisions of SEC ALJs are not final under the third prong, and therefore SEC ALJs are employees, not subject to the Appointments Clause. That's because under the law the SEC itself makes the final decision, even if only by passively adopting an ALJ's decision. The court explained:
Until the Commission determines not to order review, within the time allowed by its rules, there is no final decision that can "be deemed the action of the Commission." As the Commission has emphasized, the initial decision becomes final when, and only when, the Commission issues the finality order, and not before then. Thus, the Commission must affirmatively act--by issuing the order--in every case. The Commission's final action is either in the form of a new decision after de novo review, or, by declining to grant or order review, its embrace of the ALJ's initial decision as its own. In either event, the Commission has retained full decision-making powers, and the mere passage of time is not enough to establish finality. And even when there is not full review by the Commission, it is the act of issuing the finality order that makes the initial decision the action of the Commission within the meaning of the delegation statute. . . .
Put otherwise, the Commission's ALJs neither have been delegated sovereign authority to act independently of the Commission nor, by other means established by Congress, do they have the power to bind third parties, or the government itself, for the public benefit.
The court went on to uphold the Commission's finding of liability and sanctions against the petitioner on other grounds.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) ruled last week in State national Bank of Big Spring v. Lew rejected a Recess Appointments Clause challenge to Consumer Protection Financial Bureau Director Richard Cordray. At the same time, the court declined to rule on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the Bureau itself.
The ruling is a decisive win for Director Cordray and actions he took during his period of recess appointment (before he was confirmed by the Senate). But it leaves open the question whether the CFPB itself it unconstitutional--a question that the D.C. Circuit could answer any day now.
This is just the latest case in a spate of challenges to Cordray's appointment and the CFPB. We posted on this case when the D.C. Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs had standing.
The plaintiffs argued that Director Cordray's recess appointment in January 2012 violated the Recess Appointments Clause. And they had good reason to think they were right: the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Noel Canning that the President's recess appointments to the NLRB on the same day he appointed Cordray violated the Clause.
But Judge Huvelle didn't actually rule on that argument. That's because President Obama re-nominated Cordray in 2013, and the Senate confirmed him; he then (as validly appointed head of the CFPB) issued a notice in the Federal Register ratifying all the actions he took during his recess-appointment period. Judge Huvelle said that under circuit law the ratification cured any actions during this period that would have been invalid because of his invalid recess appointment.
But at the same time, the court punted on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the CFPB itself. That argument--which says that the CFPB invalidly combines legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the hands of a single individual--is currently pending at the D.C. Circuit in another case, PPH Corp. v. CFPB, and the court could rule any day now.
Judge Huvelle's ruling is a clear win for the CFPB and Cordray. But the real heart of opponents' claims against the Bureau are the ones now at the D.C. Circuit--that the CFPB violates the separation of powers.
Friday, April 15, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday in CFPB v. Gordon that Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Chief Richard Cordray had authority and standing to bring an enforcement claim against Chance Gordon, a California attorney and putative provider of home loan modification services.
The ruling is a win for the hotly contested CFPB and Cordray's authority during the period after his recess appointment but before his Senate confirmation.
President Obama initially appointed Cordray by recess appointment on January 4, 2012--the same day that he appointed three individuals to the NLRB by recess appointment, an act that the Supreme Court ruled invalid in Noel Canning. President Obama later renominated Cordray, and he was confirmed by the Senate on July 16, 2013. A month and a half later, the CFPB issued a Notice of Ratification, ratifying all of Cordray's actions from January 4, 2012, through July 17, 2013.
The CFPB filed a civil enforcement action against Gordon in July 2012, apparently in this ratification period. Gordon moved to dismiss for lack of standing and for a violation of the Appointments Clause. A split panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected his claims.
The court ruled first that Cordray's appointment has nothing to do with Article III standing, because executive enforcement is independent of Article III. The court explained:
Here, Congress authorized the CFPB to bring actions in federal court to enforce certain consumer protection statutes and regulations. And with this authorization, the Executive Branch, through the CFPB, need not suffer a "particularized injury"--it is charged under Article II to enforce federal law. That its director was improperly appointed does not alter the Executive Branch's interest or power in having federal law enforced . . . . While the failure to have a properly confirmed director may raise Article II Appointments Clause issues, it does not implicate our Article III jurisdiction to hear this case.
Moreover, the court held that Cordray's ratification cures any Appointments Clause deficiencies that might otherwise destroy the CFPB's enforcement action against Gordon. In other words, Cordray ratified all his prior actions after his recess appointment but before his Senate confirmation, including the civil enforcement action against Gordon, and that solved any problems that he might have had for actions taken during that period.
Judge Ikuta dissented, arguing that because Cordray's recess appointment was invalid, "no one could claim the Executive's unique Article III standing. Because the plaintiff here lacked executive power and therefore lacked Article III standing, the district court was bound to dismiss the action."
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled that the new Copyright Royalty Board, reconstituted after the court previously held that the old Board violated the Appointments Clause, did not itself violate the Appointments Clause after it came to the same decision as the old Board using the same record. The ruling upholds the new Board's decision to impose a $500 per station or per channel annual minimum fee for collegiate Internet radio stations.
The Copyright Royalty Board was originally composed of three Copyright Royalty Judges who were appointed by the Librarian of Congress and could only be removed for cause. The Board imposed the $500 fee on webcasters in 2011. Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a nonprofit that represents college and high school radio stations, challenged the fee, arguing that the Board violated the Appointments Clause. The D.C. Circuit agreed, ruling that the judges had sufficient authority and independence to qualify as principal officers, thus requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The court cured the defect by severing the statutory provision that barred the Librarian of Congress from removing the judges without cause.
The Librarian then replaced the Board with new members. The new Board decided to re-determine the copyright terms based on the existing record (the one that the parties established with the original Board) and to review the record de novo. The new Board issued the same $500 fee, and Intercollegiate again appealed.
This time Intercollegiate argued that the new Board was tainted by the old Board's decision, and thus the new Board also violated the Appointments Clause. The court flatly rejected this argument. Among other things, the court noted that the parties themselves set the record with the old Board, and the new Board re-decided the case on its own terms, without taint from the original Board.
The ruling is consistent with circuit law that a body reconstituted to comply with the Appointments Clause does violate the Appointments Clause simply because the original body did.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled in Dodge of Naperville v. NLRB that the NLRB's finding of an unfair labor practice against the petitioner was valid, and that the Board didn't lack quorum to act in the waning days of Member Craig Becker's recess appointment.
The ruling means that the NLRB's finding stands.
The petitioners challenged the NLRB finding on the merits and based on the NLRB's lack of quorum at the time it issued its finding. As to the latter, the petitioners argued that the NLRB had only two members (one shy of quorum) when it issued its opinion on January 3, 2012, because the appointment of Member Becker (who was recess appointed in the second session of the 111th Congress) expired on December 17, 2011. That's the date when the Senate agree to adjourn and convene for pro forma sessions only every Tuesday and Friday until January 23, 2012.
But the court flatly rejected this argument. The court said that Member Becker's appoint was valid until "the end of their next session"--that is, until noon on January 2, 2012. The court, citing Noel Canning, said that "the end of an annual session is triggered by a recess only if the Senate adjourns sine die--that is, without specifying a date to return." But under the Senate's adjournment plan, the body convened every few days after December 17, making the short breaks between meetings intra-session recesses--and not end-points for the prior session.
The court rejected the petitioners' argument that maybe the Board's opinion issued after noon on January 3, because the petitioner only raised this point for the first time on reply.
Monday, November 10, 2014
The D.C. Circuit today upheld an appointment to the NLRB on the first day of a 17-day intra-session recess of the Senate for a vacancy that existed before the recess. The case is an application of the Supreme Court's ruling last Term in Noel Canning--and it shows why all three parts of that ruling matter.
The case was a challenge to an NLRB decision based on lack of quorum, just like Noel Canning. In particular, the appellants, Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge, argued that President Obama's appointment of Gary Becker to the Board violated the Recess Appointment Clause, because President Obama made the appointment to an already-existing vacancy on the first day of an intra-session recess.
The D.C. Circuit said that the recess appointment authority extends to intra-session recesses and to vacancies that already existed at the time of the recess, based on two of the holdings in Noel Canning. The court also said that the 17-day recess here was longer than the 10 days that the Supreme Court identified as enough to constitute a "recess."
Breaking a little new ground, however, the court also said that it didn't matter that Becker's appointment came on the first day of this 17-day recess. That's because, under historical examples that the Court relied upon in Noel Canning, the "lawfulness of a recess appointment depends on the ultimate length of the recess . . . not the number of days from the start of the recess to the appointment."
But don't count on this to shift the balance of power back to the President (by allowing him to recess appoint on the first day of any open-ended recess). Instead, it'll only mean that the Senate, if it wants to foil the use of the recess appointment power, won't have an open-ended recess; it'll define the recess and use pro forma sessions (as it did in the recess leading to Noel Canning).
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing today on President Obama's nomination of Sharon Block to the NLRB. Block was one of the recess-appointees to the NLRB that the Supreme Court struck this summer in Noel Canning. Her nomination this time is going through the regular Appointments Clause process.
If confirmed, Brown would replace Nancy Schiffer and become the third Democrat on the five-member Board.
Republicans oppose Brown because of her political ideology and the direction of the Board with President Obama's appointments. They also see her appointment as an end-run around Noel Canning (given that Noel Canning struck her recess appointment).
Still, the full Senate will likely confirm her. That's because of the filibuster rules change that allows most presidential nominees to move forward to an up-or-down majority vote in the Senate.
Of course, if nominees like Brown hadn't faced a Republican filibuster in the first place, President Obama wouldn't have recess-appointed them; instead, they would have been confirmed through the ordinary appointment process--exactly what's happening to Brown now. In that way, after all the drama and attention to President Obama's recess appointments in Noel Canning, we're right back where we might have started: majority (not super-majority) confirmation of presidential nominees through the ordinary appointment process.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
The Tenth Circuit yesterday upheld an NLRB order by a Board panel that included Craig Becker, one of President Obama's recess appointments to the Board. The court suggested that the parties might have challenged the NLRB order under the Supreme Court's ruling this summer in Noel Canning (which held that President Obama lacked authority under the Recess Appointment Clause to appoint certain members to the Board). But because the parties didn't raise the argument--and instead actively steered the court away from the point--the court didn't rule on the Board's quorum, and instead upheld the order on the merits.
The order at issue came from an NLRB panel that included Craig Becker, a recess appointee during a two-plus week recess of the Senate. The Supreme Court wrote in Noel Canning that a Senate recess less than ten days is "presumptively too short" to allow the President to make an appointment pursuant to the Recess Appointment Clause. Under that language, Becker's appointment isn't presumptively invalid. But the Tenth Circuit also suggested that it wasn't necessarily valid:
To be sure, the Supreme Court stopped short of validating every appointment made during a recess ten days or longer. One might even read the majority opinion as leaving the door open for future challenges to some such appointments: from the proposition that shorter than ten days is usually too short it doesn't follow that ten days or longer is always enough.
Still, the court didn't touch the issue, because the parties didn't argue it. ("We don't often raise arguments to help litigants who decline to help themselves, especially when the litigants have consciously waived the arguments by steering us away from them and toward the merits instead.") Instead, the court upheld the order on the merits.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, put out a statement today in reaction to the Court's ruling in Noel Canning, which struck President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB. He said, correctly, that "[t]he impact of today's ruling is far less than it might have been, because there is now a full complement of Senate-confirmed members of the NLRB and a Senate-confrimed NLRB general counsel."
But there's another reason that the impact of today's decision is less than it might have been: the Senate's limitation on the use of the filibuster. That limitation, a Senate rules change from last fall, should also blunt today's ruling. That's because the President won't have to use recess appointments as much to dodge Senate minority obstruction on nominees, because the principle tool for that obstruction, the filibuster, is now limited to legislation and Supreme Court nominees, not executive nominees and lower federal judges.
Sean Higgins at the Washington Examiner makes a similar point, and argues that the ruling today is merely a set-back for unions at the NLRB (because they'll have to relitigate all the cases the NLRB decided with its recess-appointees). (This applies to other agencies, too, with recess appointees that are invalid under today's ruling.) The bigger fight, over the filibuster and actual appointees to the NLRB, has already been won by the President.
The Supreme Court today in NLRB v. Noel Canning gave a broad reading to the Recess Appointment Clause, but nevertheless struck President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB, ruling that the Senate was in session. The ruling means that the NLRB lacked a quorum when it issued an order to Noel Canning, a Pepsi distributor, and that order is invalid. It's not clear yet how many other offices may be affected by the ruling. Our oral argument review (with a link to our preview) is here.
The ruling hands a defeat to President Obama in the short run (on the NLRB appointments), and, despite the broad reading of the clause, may hinder presidents in the future. That's becuase the Court said that the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided that it retains power to act, as it did here. That means that even when the Senate meets in pro forma sessions, as here, presidential appointments have to follow the usual course and get Senate confirmation (instead of dodging Senate confirmation through the recess appointment mechanism). As a result, the Senate can frustrate a president's ability to recess-appoint a nominee by going into pro forma sessions (again, with the ability to act), thus forcing a president to gain Senate confirmation (which, as we've seen, may be a difficult or impossible task).
The Court said that any session more than 3 days but shorter than 10 days is presumptively too short to constitute a recess of the Senate and thus to allow a recess appointment. And again: the Senate gets to say, presumptively, when it's in recess.
As to a recess over 3 days: the Adjournment Clause (Art. I, Sec. 5) allows the House to prevent a recess of the Senate. This gives even the House the power to block a recess--and recess appointments--for any period over 3 days. That means that the House could block a recess appointment by denying the Senate consent to recess.
Because the Senate was in session when President Obama made the NLRB appointments--because it said it was, and because it retained power to act, even if it was in pro forma sessions--the Court ruled them invalid.
At the same time, the Court handed the executive branch a victory on its broader reading of the Recess Appointments Clause. Thus the Court ruled that a "recess" includes both inter-session recesses and intra-session recesses. It also ruled that "vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate" include vacancies that first come into existence during a recess and vacancies that initially occurred before a recess but continued during the recess.
The judgment striking the NLRB appointees was unanimous. But Justice Scalia wrote a concurrence, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Scalia wrote that the majority went too far in reading a broader Recess Appointment Clause and relied too heavily on prior presidential practice:
To reach [its] result, the majority casts aside the plain, original meaning of the constitutional text in deference to late-arising historical practices that are ambiguous at best. The majority's insistence on deferring to the Executive's untenably broad interpretation of the power is in clear conflict with our precedent and forebodes a dimunition of this Court's role in controversies involving the separation of powers and the structure of government.
June 26, 2014 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
The Senate voted yesterday 55 to 43 to confirm Robert L. Wilkins to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. WaPo reports here. The confirmation marks the third time since the Senate abolished the filibuster for executive and lower-court nominees that the body voted by a bare majority to confirm one of President Obama's nominees to this court. We last posted on the issue here.
Monday, January 13, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the case testing whether the President may make recess appointments to positions already vacant during an intra-session recess of the Senate. Our argument preview is here.
The Court today was especially sensitive to the many thorny doctrinal, practical, and political issues in the case, and seemed to be looking for a simple solution that would dodge them. The ordinary appointments process (with advice and consent of the Senate), as suggested by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg (see below), may well be that solution. If so, the Court might read the Recess Appointments Clause more restrictively in this case, limiting the President's recess-appointments authority, and giving more power to the Senate to hold up executive appointments by declining to recess.
The case presents three questions about the Recess Appointments Clause:
1. Does "the Recess of the Senate" include intra-session breaks, or recesses?
2. Do "Vacancies that may happen during the Recess" include vacancies that already existed?
3. Can the President exercise the recess-appoitnment power when the Senate convenes only every three days in pro forma sessions?
The arguments included the predictable points on text and history--interpretations of "the Recess," the clause "may happen," and historical practices and understandings. (If anything, these arguments only revealed how indeterminate and contestable these sources can be. See, e.g., the discussion on the OED's definitions of "happen" starting at about page 60 or so of the transcript, and the points over practices running throughout the arguments.) The particular concern with the words "may happen" suggest one possible outcome: the Court could rule that while "the Recess" includes intra-session recesses, "may happen" extends only to vacancies that occur (not already exist) during a recess.
But the more interesting--and probably more important--points were on balance-of-powers principles and practical implications--against the obvious backdrop of partisan politics.
Indeed, what started in the briefing as a debate principally about the meaning and practice of the Recess Appointment Clause turned quickly today into a debate about executive power and whether the Senate encroached on executive recess-appointment power by meeting in pro forma sessions and thus denying the President a recess in which to make recess appointments. General Verrilli pushed the argument on executive authority beyond a mere point on when the Senate is in "recess," claiming broadly that the President should get to fill all vacancies. Justice Alito put a fine point on it:
But you are making a very, very aggressive argument in favor of executive power now and it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the Senate is in session or not. You're just saying when the Senate acts, in your view, irresponsibly and refuses to confirm nominations, then the President must be able to fill those--fill those positions. That's what you're arguing. I don't see what that has to do with whether the Senate is in session.
But Noel Canning and the Senate Minority Leader both took aggressive positions the other way, saying that the Senate gets to decide when it's on recess--even saying that it's never on recess--thus severely limiting the President's recess appoitment power. Respondents argued that the President has come to use the recess appointment power to deal with Senate intransigence, not emergencies--an argument that seemed to resonate with the Court.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan both seemed concerned that such an important balance-of-powers issue could turn on magic language in a Senate resolution, for example, as here, that says "No business shall be conducted." Chief Justice Roberts said that this maybe made the point not so important. Justice Kagan said that focusing on the phrasing of a Senate resolution could just land the case back at the Court, and that focusing on this kind of formalism suggests that it really is the Senate's responsibility to determine when it's in session or not. But General Verrilli responded that the recess appointment power is an executive authority, "[a]nd the President has got to make a determination of when there's a recess"--that the Senate's use of pro forma sessions to stay in session (and not on recess) is an encroachment on Article II Recess Appointment power.
The Court was also concerned about how to balance text against practice. Justice Scalia posed this question:
What do you do when there is a practice that--that flatly contradicts a clear text of the Constitution? Which--which of the two prevails?
General Verrilli responded:
The answer is I think, given this--a practice going back to the founding of the Republic, the practice should be--the practice should govern, but we don't have that here. This provision has been subject to contention as to its meaning since the first days of the Republic.
Justices Alito and Kagan asked the same question to Noel Canning, and got the exact opposite answer.
The Court was also concerned about a related problem: If the government gets its way, it appears that the Senate violated the 20th Amendment and the Adjournment Clause. Justices Breyer and Alito both suggested that the Court would rather avoid that conclusion.
These more theoretical issues are serious, to be sure, but they may not be necessary to resolve the case. The Court was equally, or more, concerned about the practical implications of the case--in particular, how a ruling could affect already-made decisions by the NLRB, other government agencies, and even the courts (because of recess-appointed judges). Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg asked about this; Justice Scalia suggested a way out of this problem, the de facto officer doctrine; still General Verrilli said that "it certainly casts a serious cloud over the legitimacy of all those actions."
Also focusing on the practical aspects of the case, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg both wondered why the President couldn't just use the ordinary appointment process (and why the Senate couldn't decline to confirm)--in other words, why the government says that the pro forma sessions and lack of intra-session recess appointment power is a problem. Justice Scalia pointed out that the President can convene Congress (under Article II, Section 3, "He may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both houses"), and that Congress can get back within a day or so to deal with appointments.
Finally, Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan both asked about the politics--the shifting positions of the parties, depending on who is in the White House, and the President's use of the recess appointment power to deal with congressional intrasingence, not emergencies. General Verrilli responded that the Senate's advice-and-consent role is much larger today than the framers anticipated, and that today it encroaches on the President's appointment power--trying to take the case out of ordinary politics and place it back in larger balance-of-powers issues.
January 13, 2014 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, January 10, 2014
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the case testing the President's recess appointment power. In particular, the case tests whether the President can make a recess appointment during a prolonged intra-session recess of the Senate in which the Senate sits in pro forma sessions every three days. We most recently posted on the case here.
Here's a preview, reprinted, with permission, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases:
The National Labor Relations Board, or the NLRB or the Board, consists of five members who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Three members constitute a quorum, and without three or more members the Board cannot adjudicate cases involving unfair labor practices under the National Labor Relations Act.
On January 3, 2012, Board membership fell to two members. The next day, on January 4, 2012, President Obama sought to fill the three vacancies with recess appointments pursuant to the Recess Appointments Clause of the Constitution. That Clause allows the president “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate,” without obtaining the usual advice and consent. Thus President Obama purported to appoint Sharon Block, Terence F. Flynn, and Richard F. Griffin to seats that had become vacant on January 3, 2012, August 27, 2010, and August 27, 2011, respectively. The appointments, if valid, would have completed the five-member NLRB. (Two Board members, Chairman Mark G. Pearce and Brian Hayes, were confirmed by the Senate on June 22, 2010. Neither party disputes the validity of their appointments.)
President Obama purported to use the recess appointment power, because at the time the Senate was not meeting regularly. Instead, the Senate was operating pursuant to a unanimous consent agreement that provided that the Senate would meet in pro forma sessions only, “with no business conducted,” every three business days from January 3, the beginning of the second session of the 112th Congress, to January 23, 2012. The agreement said that each pro forma session would be followed immediately by another adjournment. The agreement meant that no senators were required to attend, except the one who gaveled in and out each pro forma session. (A previous and similar unanimous consent agreement ran from December 17 to January 3, 2012. The Senate interrupted that agreement once, on December 23, 2011, to pass a temporary extension to the reduced payroll tax.)
On February 8, 2012, a three-member panel of the Board, composed of Block, Hayes, and Flynn, affirmed the findings of an NLRB administrative law judge (ALJ) that Noel Canning engaged in an unfair labor practice. (The ALJ found that Noel Canning refused to execute a written collective bargaining agreement incorporating terms, related to wages and pension, that the union and Noel Canning agreed upon during contract negotiations. The ALJ found that Noel Canning’s refusal to execute an agreement violated §§ 8(a)(1) and (5) of the National Labor Relations Act.) Noel Canning appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, challenging the NLRB’s decision on its merits, and arguing that the Board could not act lawfully because it lacked a quorum. The court rejected Noel Canning’s arguments on the merits, but ruled that the NLRB lacked a quorum, and therefore did not act lawfully, because President Obama’s appointments violated the Recess Appointments Clause.
The Board sought review in the Supreme Court, presenting two questions that had been decided by the court of appeals. The Supreme Court granted review and directed the parties also to address “[w]hether the President’s recess-appointment power may be exercised when the Senate is convening every three days in pro forma sessions.”
The Recess Appointments Clause, Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, provides that “[t]he President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The Clause is designed to allow the president to fill vacancies that would otherwise require the advice and consent of the Senate when the Senate is not available to provide advice and consent. This case tests the pliability of that Clause.
The parties’ arguments turn on the plain language, meaning, and history of the Clause and presidential practice. In particular, the parties dispute (1) whether the Senate was on “the Recess” on January 4, 2012, when President Obama appointed the three members of the NLRB, (2) whether the vacancies on the NLRB “happen[ed] during the Recess of the Senate,” and (3) whether the president can exercise his recess-appointment authority when the Senate is convening every three days in pro forma sessions.
On each question, the parties also wrangle over separation-of-powers principles. In short, the government argues that the Senate should not be able to frustrate the president’s constitutional duty to execute the laws by holding up appointments by recessing with only pro forma sessions. Noel Canning counters that the president’s position represents a dramatic power grab over the recess appointment authority, at the expense of the Senate.
What is “the Recess”?
The government argues that the phrase “the Recess” applies to both an inter-session recess (that is, one between sessions of Congress) and an intra-session recess (that is, one during a session of Congress, as here). The government says that the definite article “the” does not change that. It contends that “the” is commonly used to refer to a category of events (and not a particular event, like “the [only inter-session] Recess”), even elsewhere in the Constitution itself. It also claims that the phrase “the Recess” was, by 1787, regularly used to describe the equivalent of intra-session breaks of the British Parliament, state legislatures, the Continental Congress, and even the Constitutional Convention.
The government argues that excluding intra-session recesses from the Clause would undermine its purposes. In particular, the government says that excluding intra-session recesses would prevent the president from filling vacant offices, and thus exercising his constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, whenever the Senate is unavailable to provide advice and consent for a significant period of time.
Finally, the government claims that long-standing practice supports intra-session recess appointments throughout the nation’s history, and even before 1943. (The government particularly takes on the court of appeals’ assumption that there were only a handful of intra-session recess appointments before 1943, suggesting that presidents before 1943 thought they lacked the power to make them.) The government says, contrary to the court of appeals’ assumption, that presidents made intra-session recess appointments “in every year before 1943 in which there was an intra-session recess of significant duration.” It claims that “[a]t least fourteen Presidents have, collectively, made at least 600 civilian appointments (and thousands of military ones) during intra-session recesses.” And it contends that the practice was endorsed in a 1921 attorney general opinion and described as “the accepted view” in a 1948 comptroller general opinion. It says that nearly all presidents after President Truman made intra-session recess appointments, and that opinions of the attorney general, the Office of Legal Counsel, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit all reaffirmed the validated of intra-session recess appointments during that most recent period.
Noel Canning argues that the plain language of the Clause means that the president can exercise his recess appointment power only during inter-session recesses. Noel Canning claims that the Clause links “the Recess” with the “next Session,” so that “the Recess” refers only to inter-session breaks. It says that the Clause makes “the Recess” and the “Session” alternating states, so that “the Recess” must fall between “Session[s],” that is, formal, numbered Sessions of the Senate (and not daily “sessions”). Stated only slightly differently, Noel Canning contends that the plain language means that the Senate cannot be in “the Recess” and “the Session” at the same time—a condition necessary to support the government’s reading.
Noel Canning argues that the original understanding and historical practice support its plain reading of the Clause. It says that its reading is supported by “every executive or congressional official to construe the Clause prior to 1948,” by early commentators, and by other ratification-era documents and provisions. As to the historical practice, it claims that no president other than Andrew Johnson even attempted to make a recess appointment during an intra-session recess before 1921.
Finally, Noel Canning argues that the government’s position is not supported by the text, original meaning, or historical practice. Instead, it contends, the government’s position is simply the latest in a relatively recent series of increasingly aggressive assertions by the executive branch of mid-session recess appointment power.
Did the Vacancies Happen During the Recess?
The government argues that the Recess Appointments Clause authorizes the president to fill vacancies that exist during the recess, and not just those that arose during the recess. The government claims that the phrase “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess” is ambiguous (as recognized by President Jefferson in 1802 and by Attorney General Wirt in 1823), but can reasonably be read to include vacancies that exist during the recess. It says that this reading best serves the Clause’s purposes, to allow the president to fill all vacancies that occur. It claims that the contrary reading would cause offices to remain vacant “solely because prior occupants died or resigned—or those offices were first established—shortly before, rather than shortly after, a recess began.
The government also argues that long-standing practice supports this reading. The government says that since the 1820s, the vast majority of presidents have made recess appointments to fill vacancies that arose before a recess and existed during the recess. It claims that this practice was supported by a series of attorney general opinions and every court of appeals prior to the D.C. Circuit’s ruling here. The government says that before 1823, contrary to the court of appeals’ assumption, there was no settled understanding of this issue. But it contends that “there were indications from each of the first four Presidents—including actual appointments by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—that recess appointments can indeed be used to fill vacancies that pre-existed the recess.”
Noel Canning argues that the plain text supports its position. In particular, it says that the Clause’s requirement that the vacancy must “happen during” “the Recess” means that the vacancy must arise during the recess. It says that the government’s contrary reading would erase the phrase “may happen during” from the Clause.
Noel Canning argues that its reading is supported by the original understanding and historical practice. It says that the first four presidents understood that the Clause was limited to those vacancies that arose during the recess, as did the Senate and numerous courts until the late nineteenth century. It contends that the executive branch’s longstanding practice “has been more equivocal than [the government] lets on,” and that the “Senate’s resistance more robust.” But in any event, it claims, that the political branches’ practices cannot override the Clause’s plain language and its structural protection against presidential overreach.
Did This Break Constitute a Recess?
The government argues that the Senate’s 20-day break, with only fleeting pro forma sessions in which no business was to be conducted, was a “recess” under the Recess Appointments Clause. The government claims that both the Senate (since 1905) and the president (since 1921) have formally recognized that the Senate is in “recess” under the Clause when the Senate’s members do not have to attend sessions and when the Senate cannot receive communications from the president or participate in making appointments. The government contends that these conditions held during the 20-day period here, notwithstanding the periodic pro forma sessions.
The government argues that the mere possibility that the Senate might have overturned its unanimous consent agreement, recalled its members, and conducted business cannot change this. The government contends that if that possibility alone meant that the president could not make a recess appointment, then the recess appointment power would be dormant anytime the Senate might come back into session, including during traditional inter-session recesses.
The government argues that historical practice does not support the use of pro forma sessions to prevent the president from making recess appointments. The government says that no president has acknowledged that pro forma sessions would prevent him from making a recess appointment, and that there is no settled presidential acquiescence in the practice of using pro forma sessions to frustrate a president’s use of the recess appointment power. Moreover, the government claims that the use of pro forma sessions by the House and Senate to comply with the Adjournment Clause (which prevents either house from adjourning for more than three days without the consent of the other) does not provide precedent for the Senate’s use of pro forma sessions here. The government says that the better view of this practice is that pro forma sessions do not satisfy the Adjournment Clause.
Finally, the government argues that the Senate’s use of pro forma sessions to frustrate the president’s exercise of his recess appointment power disrupts the balance of powers in Article II. The government says that this gambit—which the Senate has used since 2007 “to string together breaks in business lasting as long as 47 days”—would undermine the president’s constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
Noel Canning argues that the president cannot make recess appointments when the Senate convenes pro forma sessions every three days. It claims that the Senate has used pro forma sessions for a variety of purposes since 1854 (including for Adjournment Clause purposes), that the executive has recognized the validity of those sessions, and that presidents have historically refrained from recess appointments during pro forma sessions. Noel Canning contends that the executive branch previously acknowledged that pro forma sessions count under the Clause, and that this administration previously “expressly recognized that pro forma sessions preclude recess appointments.” (At oral argument in New Process Steel v. NLRB, 130 S. Ct. 2635, in 2010, Neal Katyal, then Principal Deputy Solicitor General, said, in response to a question from Chief Justice Roberts on the recess appointment power: “I think our office has opined the recess has to be longer than 3 days.” But just four days later, President Obama made a recess appointment to the NLRB.)
Noel Canning argues that pro forma sessions are actual and legitimate Senate sessions, with the capability of conducting business. Noel Canning says that this is so regardless of whether members have to attend. It also claims that the president has no authority to second-guess the Senate’s internal operations, including its use of pro forma sessions.
This case threatens a key practice by presidents of both parties in filling executive vacancies in the face of an obstructionist Senate and ensuring the continued operations of executive departments. The appendices in the government’s merits brief, detailing recess appointments starting from the Washington administration, show just how widely this practice has been used—and how a rejection of the practice could threaten so many appointments and operations of the executive branch. The facts of this case well illustrate that threat: President Obama made his recess appointments to the NLRB in order to sidestep Senate obstructionism; without valid recess appointments, the NLRB would have had no authority to enforce the National Labor Relations Act.
But the case threatens more than just this particular NLRB. As the government writes in its certiorari brief, “[t]he decision potentially calls into question every final decision of the Board since January 4, 2012,” earlier Board orders, and the actions of “almost any federal officer who received a recess appointment during an intra-session recess, or who was appointed to fill a vacancy that did not first arise during the recess in which the appointment was made . . . .” Considering the number of recess appointments (again, identified in the appendices to the government’s merits brief), there may be numerous such actions across the federal bureaucracy.
On the other hand, the case threatens a key Senate tool in checking the president. The Senate’s practice of using pro forma sessions to frustrate the President’s use of the recess-appointment power could be a very effective way for some in the Senate (or even the House, by way of the Adjournment Clause, see below) to advance their own agendas by way of the appointment process.
Aside from its implications, this case marks the latest round in the escalating gamesmanship between both parties in Congress and the White House over executive nominees. That gamesmanship includes (as relevant here) the use of the filibuster in the Senate to frustrate presidential appointments; the president’s use of the recess-appointment power to sidestep a filibuster or other obstruction in the Senate; and congressional efforts to prevent the president from exercising the recess appointment power. Those efforts include pro forma sessions, as in this case, and even House efforts to prevent a recess in the Senate. (For example, in May and June, 2011, Republicans in the Senate and House urged the Speaker of the House John Boehner to “prevent any and all recess appointments by preventing the Senate from recessing for the remainder of the 112th Congress.” The House could do this, because the Adjournment Clause says that “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days . . . .” Between May 12, 2011, and the end of that year, no concurrent resolution of adjournment was introduced in either chamber, and as a result the Senate held pro forma sessions every three days during extended breaks (rather than going on “recess.”) This case is just the latest move in this escalating struggle over nominations.
But the case is probably somewhat less significant than it was just a few months ago. That’s because the Senate’s abolishment of the filibuster in late 2012 for executive and lower court appointments removed a significant block to appointments—one that spurred the president’s use of the recess appointment authority in the first place. If the abolishment of the filibuster continues to mean that the president’s nominees can get a vote in the Senate, the president may not need to resort to the recess appointment power as much. (This could change if the Senate and the White House are controlled by different parties, so that a bare majority of the opposite party in the Senate could reject a nominee, even without resorting to the filibuster.)
There is a way that the Court could dodge the issue entirely. At least one amici, Professor Victor Williams, argued at the certiorari stage and again at the merits stage that the Court should dismiss the case as a nonjusticiable political question. If the Court so ruled, it would reverse the circuit court’s ruling on the constitutional question. That would mean that President Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB would be valid, and that the circuit court’s ruling on the merits (against Noel Canning) would stand.
Rachel Maddow posits the possibility that the scandal surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the traffic jam by the city of Fort Lee at the George Washington Bridge may have less to do with the election than with the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Much of Maddow's conjecture rests on the timing of the now infamous email "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," sent on the morning of August 13, 2013 by a top Christie aide from her private email account to a Port of Authority official who responded "Got it."
But to understand the Maddow theory, one needs to return to 2010. Recall that as we discussed in May 2010, there was a potential "constitutional conflict" brewing over Governor Christie's non-"reappointment" of John Wallace, then the only African-American of the seven state justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court. And recall also that despite objections from retired members of the judicary, Christie reportedly found "laughable" any notion that politics was not part of the judicial appointment process, pointing to the fact that there would be another election in 2013.
But John Wallace was not the only NJ Supreme Court Justice whose reappointment would be at issue during Christie's first term. Another Justice, supported by Christie, was due before the Senate. And the NJ Senate Democrats - - - led by a legislator from Fort Lee - - - may not have been being co-operative. In any case, Christie withdrew his reappointment of that Justice the evening before the GW Bridge lane closures began.
Here's the video from the Rachel Maddow Show:
Worth a read with details is the discussion of MSNBC's Steve Benen.
Friday, December 13, 2013
The Senate yesterday confirmed Nina Pillard (Georgetown) to the D.C. Circuit, after previously filibustering her nomination. (The Senate earlier this week confirmed Patricia Millett, another earlier filibustered nominee.)
Think Progress has a really nice piece comparing Pillard to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her contribution to women's rights, and predicting that she'll "imediately rocket to the top of the Democratic shortlist of potential nominees to the Supreme Court." From TP:
Pillard was a member of the legal team in United States v. Virginia, which eliminated the Virginia Military Institute's discriminatory policies against women and cemented the rule that no law may engage in gender discrimination unless there is an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for doing so. Seven years later, Pillard argued and won Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, an important case helping women (and men) with families have a fair opportunity to participate in the workplace.
Indeed, it is likely that there is only one other judge currently on the bench who accomplished as much as a litigator for women's rights as Judge Pillard did in her career as an attorney--Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he's proposing changes to the Senate rules that would abolish the filibuster for most judicial and executive branch nominees. Reid's proposal would reportedly retain the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.
Reid is reportedly prepared to go nuclear--that is, to change the rules by a simple majority vote.
Reid's proposal comes on the heels of three successful filibusters in as many weeks by Senate Republicans of President Obama's picks for the D.C. Circuit.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Senate Republicans once again successfully blocked a nominee for the D.C. Circuit. Today's vote, 38 to 53, fell seven short of the 60 needed to overcome the Republican filibuster of Robert Wilkins's nomination to the court. Politico reports here.
Some Senate Democrats are making more noise about using the nuclear option, that is, getting rid of the filibuster (the cloture rule) for judicial nominees. Republicans (still) say that the court isn't busy enough to fill the three vacancies, and that they're just doing the same thing that Democrats did when they blocked President Bush's nominee to the court, Peter Keisler.
Active judges on the court are evenly divided between those appointed by Democrats and those appointed by Republicans. But five of the court's six senior judges--who still sit and decide cases--are appointed by conservatives. Indeed, 15 of the last 19 appointments to the court were by Republican presidents.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
The Senate failed to break a Republican-led filibuster today on President Obama's nomination of Nina Pillard to the D.C. Circuit. The vote on the cloture motion was 56-41, but 60 votes are needed to close debate.
The move marks the second time in two weeks that Republicans have successfully filibustered President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit. The last failed cloture vote came on October 31, on Patricia Millett's nomination.
Republicans complain that the President is trying to "stack" this court, often called the second most important court in the country. But that's not exactly right: Democratic Presidents still have a ways to make up with their nominees on the court, as we explained here. The American Constitution Society's JudicialNominations.org has more information about judicial vacancies, including the D.C. Circuit, here.
No word whether the Democrats will use the nuclear option (and eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations), but TPM Livewire reports that Senate Grassley "dared Democrats to 'go ahead,'" warning that such a move would make it easier for future Republicans "to appoint judges like Antonin Scalia."
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Senate Republicans today successfully filibustered Patricia Millett's nomination for the D.C. Circuit. The Senate voted 55-38 to end debate and proceed to a vote on the nomination, but the body needed 60 votes under Senate rules. The Republicans' move blocks the nomination, unless and until the Senate can muster 60 votes, or changes its rules.
Millett would fill one of three vacancies on the court. The Republicans' move means that this exceptionally important court--often called the second most important court in the country--continues to operate three shy of a full bench. The move also means that the court continues to be dominated by judges appointed by Republican presidents (despite Republicans' argues to the contrary). (There's an even split among the active judges, but judges appointed by Republicans are dominant among the semi-retired. Those semi-retired judges still sit and help decide cases.) Finally, the move means that a supremely well qualified nominee who receieved bipartisan praise won't get the nod from the Senate, despite receiving a majority to proceed to a vote.
No word yet whether Democrats will use the nuclear option and try to change the filibuster rule to bypass Republican obstruction, or whether leaders will come up with some other way to proceed.
UPDATE: Here's a link to the roll-call (h/t Glenn Sugameli).
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Millett's nomination comes before the full Senate tomorrow, and there's indication that Republicans could filibuster. If so, Senator Leahy is quoted in the NYT, "I think that the pressure on changing the [cloture] rules would be almost insurmountable." Democrats will have 55 votes in the Senate tomorrow, after Cory Booker, newly elected Democrat of New Jersey, is seated. That means that they need to pick up five Republicans to close debate.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee joined the fray, holding a hearing yesterday titled, "Are More Judges Always the Answer?" The thrust of the hearing--and one of the Republicans' argument against Millett's appointment: the D.C. Circuit doesn't do enough work to justify filling the seat. (There are currently three vacancies on the court.)
Republicans also argue that President Obama is trying to "stack" the court with judges who will be friendly to his regulatory agenda. (The court is now evenly split between judges appointed by Republican presidents and judges appointed by Democats.)