Other courts

  • May 14, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann are authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. 

    Few members of the Senate have professed more concern about dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process than Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander is a wonk who cares about policy-making and problem solving. And, most importantly, it gets personal with Lamar -- he had his own unpleasant experience with the Senate's long-broken confirmation process when he came up as a nominee for Secretary of Education. Commendably, Lamar worked in a bipartisan fashion last year, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others to streamline the process by removing a number of lower level executive nominees from the requirement for Senate confirmation.

    What has happened to that Lamar Alexander? His persona seems to have been kidnapped and replaced by partisan warrior Lamar Alexander, participating in a series of abuses of the confirmation process that are both denying a president elected by a wide margin from selecting his own people to serve and attempting to block agencies from being able to function by filibustering or applying blanket holds to clearly qualified nominees -- what Tom Mann and I have called the new nullification.

    We have seen the latter both with the NLRB, ever since Obama became president in 2009, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency charged with implementing Obamacare, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. Faced with the prospect of a National Labor Relations Board actually functioning and making decisions that reflected the majority, Republicans in the Senate filibustered to block any nominees, no matter how qualified, to prevent the agency from having a quorum. Frustrated after a long period of such behavior, Obama used recess appointments to get the agency working-- and then had to deal with a sweeping appeals court decision, written by the highly partisan judge David Sentelle, the same judge who fired competent and fair-minded Whitewater Independent Counsel Robert Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth Starr, outlawing almost all recess appointments. The decision is under appeal, but Alexander is calling for the removal of Obama-named commissioners, and also calling for them to be blocked from re-nomination in the future, before the court case has been finally litigated. 

  • May 14, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Ann C. Hodges, Professor of Law, University of Richmond

    Justice delayed is justice denied. This commonly used axiom best describes the enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act since 2007. For 27 months beginning in late 2007, the enforcing agency, the National Labor Relations Board operated with only two of its five positions filled as a result of legislative paralysis and lack of action by the executive branch.

    In June 2010, the Supreme Court, in New Process Steel v. NLRB, invalidated over 600 cases decided by the Board during that time, holding that the delegation to power to the two members before the expiration of a third member’s term in 2007 was invalid. The Board must have at least three members to act, according to the Court. 

    Maintaining confirmed members on the Board has proved to be extremely challenging in recent years.  Nominations have not received high priority and confirmation has proved extraordinarily difficult, for many of the same reasons that nominations to other agencies and federal courts have failed.

    As a consequence of the inability to obtain confirmation of nominees, President Obama has resorted to recess appointments, like many presidents before him. Yet the D.C. Circuit cast serious doubt on the tactic in its unprecedented January 2013 decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB, which held the most recent recess appointments invalid because the Senate was not in full recess between sessions.

    The NLRB currently has only three members and only one of those is not a recent recess appointee subject to the Noel Canning decision. The sole confirmed member’s term expires in August.

  • May 13, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Beyond barking about alleged Obama administration ethical lapses, congressional Republicans are continuing to cultivate the primary purpose of their agenda – obstruct, hobble and otherwise prevent all three branches of government from functioning.

    Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) early in President Obama’s first term told a right-wing gathering that Republicans’ primary goal was to prevent a second Obama term. Obviously that goal was not met.

    Nevertheless, the Republican Party, which has grown even more exclusive, largely concerning itself with the interests of the super wealthy or corporate interests, is bent on doing everything it can to ensure that any efforts to help the middle class and the poor do not make much headway.

    One way to do this is to fight efforts to change the make-up of the federal courts, to ensure they remain as business friendly as possible. That’s part of the reason why Senate Republicans have obstructed Obama’s judicial nominations and created a crisis on the federal bench with vacancies hovering over 80 for years. As noted here the president has not been able to place a judge on the august U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and there are four vacancies on the 11-member court. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation to cut the number of judges on the court to 8.

    But the obstruction doesn’t stop there. The federal agency charged with carrying out the National Labor Relations Act has been under a constant stream of attack by Republican senators. The five-member board cannot operate without a quorum and after the Republican-controlled D.C. Circuit ruled earlier this year that two of the Board’s members, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, were improperly appointed during a Senate break, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has been calling for them to resign. Doing so would effectively shutter the National Labor Relations Board until the appeals court process runs its course. And by the way, the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Canning has been widely blasted as resting on wobbly legal grounds. Moreover, the opinion runs counter to other Circuit court rulings on recess appointments, and the Obama administration has appealed it the U.S. Supreme Court. The president has not asked for their resignations, nor should he.  

  • May 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Johnda Bentley, Assistant General Counsel, Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

    The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to join together to improve their wages and working conditions. Until the Senate confirms President Obama’s nominees to the NLRB, employees’ rights and our economy are at risk.

    The NLRB stopped functioning properly in late January when the D.C. Circuit invalidated the recess appointments of two of the three current Board members in Noel Canning. With only one valid member appointed, the court concluded, the Board had lost quorum. Since this ruling, employers have challenged the agency’s authority at every level.

    The validity of the recess appointments is unclear. The issue is pending before several other circuit courts, and Noel Canning was appealed to the Supreme Court. However, assuming the Supreme Court grants review, a decision is unlikely before next year. 

    Following Noel Canning, President Obama re-nominated the two recess appointees, both Democrats. And in April, the president made three more nominations, includingtwo Republicans and the current Chairman, a Democrat. The Chairman’s current term will expire on August 27, 2013, unmistakably leaving the Board without a quorum if there are no appointments before that time. If Senate confirms all nominees, there will be a full, five-member Board. 

    In the meantime, the Board continues to issue decisions with the recess appointees, but unfair labor practices largely remain unremedied. This is because orders of the NLRB must be enforced by circuit courts, and all parties have the option to appeal to the D.C. Circuit. 

  • May 8, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While the Obama administration has done much to diversify the federal bench, Senate Republicans have so far successfully kept one of the nation’s most important appellate courts free of any diversity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules on significant and often complex matters, including national security concerns; but it also rules on matters that are of great concern to corporate America.

    Since the Republican Party is the primary coddler of the super wealthy, it’s hardly surprising that its leaders in the Senate are working feverishly to ensure that President Obama has little if any opportunity to change the ideological makeup of the D.C. Circuit. The graphic (right) produced by People For The American Way is a compelling and accessible picture of the matter. (Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley is also pushing legislation that would cut the number of judges on the bench; he claims the D.C. Circuit has enough judges and a light caseload. For the truth, read retired D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Patricia Wald’s piece for The Washington Post.)  

    For many years now, the D.C. Circuit has been controlled by conservative judges. There are four vacancies on the bench and Senate Republicans have successfully blocked the president from filling them. As Miranda notes in a PFAW blog post, because of Senate obstructionism Obama is the “first president since Woodrow Wilson to serve a full first term without placing a judge on the D.C. Circuit.”

    An opinion yesterday by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit provides yet another example of the Court’s pro-business tilt. It knocked down a rule by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requiring employers to post notices about the rights of workers, such as joining a union or advocating for safer working conditions. In a post for AFL-CIO NOW, Mike Hall calls the NLRB rule “commonsense and evenhanded,” noting that such notices also inform workers that they do not have to join a union. But the D.C. Circuit found a way to side with corporations that aren’t especially eager to inform workers of their rights pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act.

    That opinion follows one from earlier in the year, Canning v. NLRB, where the D.C. Circuit invalidated the president’s appointments to the five-member NLRB. That opinion has been appealed by the Obama administration. In short, the three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit essentially redefined what a recess appointment is, one that differs greatly from practice and federal court precedent. (See Sec. 2 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution.)

    The D.C. Circuit has also proven hostile to environmental regulations that are often challenged by corporations. In a post for grist, the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus and Doug Kendall say the D.C. Circuit, on “any given day … has the power to throw the environmental movement into complete disarray.” (They could have added to the great delight of many corporations or the Koch brothers.)