The D.C. Circuit opinion avoiding President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB purports to rest on a historically grounded reading of Article II of the Constitution. The relevant text says, "The 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."
All three D.C. judges read this language to mean that the president may fill vacancies only between "sessions" of the Senate -- that is, between the period of time between when the Senate adjourns "sine die" (without a date) at the end of one year's business and when it first assembles for the next year's business. The first of these dates typically occurs in late fall. Under the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, the second date is now Jan. 3 of each year.
Two of the three judges read the language to hold further that the president may fill only those vacancies that first arise during those same intersession breaks. If an advice-and-consent position becomes vacant, say, on Jan. 4, and the Senate leaves town for the whole summer after sitting on the president's nomination for six months, the president is just out of luck. He may not even fill the vacancy if it still exists when the Senate finally does adjourn sine die.
This second conclusion is ludicrous as a practical matter, and history utterly refutes it. Felix Frankfurter wrote in his famous Youngstown concurrence:
"Deeply embedded traditional ways of conducting government cannot supplant the Constitution or legislation, but they give meaning to the words of a text or supply them. It is an inadmissibly narrow conception of American constitutional law to confine it to the words of the Constitution and to disregard the gloss which life has written upon them."
In this case, executive branch interpretation long ago rejected the D.C. Circuit view of appointment-eligible vacancies, and Congress itself has decisively accepted the executive branch view.
In 1823, Attorney General William Wirt concluded in a formal opinion that the Article II phrase refers to all vacancies that happen to exist during "the Recess." This was, he wrote, "the only construction of the Constitution which is compatible with its spirit, reason, and purpose." As explained in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, beginning in 1855, formal Attorneys General opinions accepted the Wirt interpretation, "even with respect to newly created offices that had never been filled." The question first reached a federal court in 1880, and that court, like every other court to reach the issue until last week, accepted the Wirt view as proper.
Yet more remarkably, we know that Congress itself has endorsed this interpretation. In 1940, Congress codified a statute, 5 USC 5503, which purports to limit the circumstances under which a recess appointee can be paid from Treasury funds. In general, the statute bars payment to "an individual appointed during a recess of the Senate to fill a vacancy in an existing office, if the vacancy existed while the Senate was in session and was by law required to be filled by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, until the appointee has been confirmed by the Senate."
But Congress gave its rule three exceptions. A recess appointee may be paid "if the vacancy arose within 30 days before the end of the session of the Senate." A recess appointee may be paid, "if, at the end of the session, a nomination for the office, other than the nomination of an individual appointed during the preceding recess of the Senate, was pending before the Senate for its advice and consent." A recess appointee may be paid "if a nomination for the office was rejected by the Senate within 30 days before the end of the session and an individual other than the one whose nomination was rejected thereafter receives a recess appointment."
All of these exceptions -- crafted by the legislative branch itself -- obviously refer to and acquiesce in recess appointments to positions that became vacant while the Senate was in session. This is nothing less than explicit congressional ratification of the position that the D.C. Circuit rejects. To quote Frankfurter again: "[A] systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of the Congress and never before questioned, engaged in by Presidents who have also sworn to uphold the Constitution, making as it were such exercise of power part of the structure of our government, may be treated as a gloss on 'executive Power' vested in the President by § 1 of Art. II." The D.C. Circuit should have heeded this wisdom.
The court also got the first issue wrong in insisting that the only recess to which Article II refers is "the recess" between formal sessions of Congress. As a wise commenter on one of my earlier posts pointed out, this a plausible reading only if the Framers magically anticipated how Congress, not yet in existence, would organize its calendar. In fact, nothing in the Constitution suggests that the Framers anticipated that a Congress would organize itself into sessions of any particular length, much less sessions that formally begin with an opening call to order and go into "the recess" only by adjourning sine die.
In addition to the Recess Appointments Clause, references to "sessions" of Congress occur in two other places in the original Constitution. Under Article I, section 5, "Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting." The most natural reading of this clause is that "the Session" refers to whenever Congress is sitting. Nothing dictates that "the Session" referred to will last a day, a month, or a year.
Indeed, if "the Session" is read to refer to an assembly of specific duration, the most natural reading would equate "the Session" with the entire two-year congressional sitting, what we now call, "a Congress." Importing that meaning into the Recess Appointments Clause would yield the remarkable result that a recess appointee who takes office early in January of an odd-numbered year might be entitled to serve for nearly four years thereafter.
Section 6 of Article I similarly provides that members of Congress "shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses." Again, "the Session" appears to refer simply to when a House of Congress is actually meeting.
It would seem to follow most naturally from these references to "the Session" that the article "the" does not really have a limiting semantic function in these clauses. The D.C. Circuit's obsession with "the" in the phrase, "the recess," is just nonsense. "The Recess" should be understood in the same informal, functionally sensible way as we understand "the session." That is, when Congress is assembled to do business, it is sitting in "the Session." When the Senate is not around to do business, it is in "the Recess."
It might be said that my interpretation of the Constitution licenses too much executive mischief. Presidents might construe the Senate's lunch hour as a "recess." Or they might withhold nominations until a Senate break in order to avoid advice and consent altogether. But, of course, as recent history has shown, Congress can work mischief of its own. The Senate can hold up patently qualified nominees interminably. Or a majority of the House of Representatives may disable the Senate from going into "the recess" for no reason other than to preserve the filibustering prerogatives of a Senate minority.
But, as the Supreme Court has said over a century ago and repeatedly since, "the possible abuse of a power is not an argument against its existence." The restraints on interbranch shenanigans are most powerfully the checks and balances built into the Constitution and the accountability of our political leaders to the electorate. It may be the province of the courts to say what the law is; it is not their province to cut bright-line rules from whole cloth that run counter to text, constitutional history and good sense.
The D.C. Circuit panel just blew it.