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.