Appeals Court Advances Radical Effort to Block President from Filling Executive Branch Vacancies

January 25, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Senate Republicans devoted to protecting big business interests and undermining workers’ rights vigorously fought President Obama’s efforts during his first term to keep the National Labor Relations Board functioning and appoint a leader for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Republicans in the Senate have long sought to ensure that Obama could not alter the makeup of the NLRB, in order to keep it pro-business or inoperative. Moreover, Senate Republicans were opposed to the creation of the CFPB, intended to crack down on some of the shady business practices that helped lead to the Great Recession; and after its creation they were bent on making it as ineffective as possible.

Earlier today, the Republican agenda of hobbling the NLRB, which exists to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, was advanced by a ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the court, Obama’s appointments to the NLRB in early January 2012 during a 20-day recess of Congress were unconstitutional.

The appeals court opinion is at odds with other rulings from appeals court circuits and the fact that for a century, presidents, citing Article II of the Constitution, have used recess appointments to fill executive branch vacancies.

As The New York Times notes, the appeals court decision “also raises doubts about the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s recess appointment” of Richard Cordray to the CFPB. Obama appointed Cordray the same time he selected the three members of the labor board. At the time Obama noted that he was forced to make the recess appointments because of the Senate’s refusal to move on his nominations to the board and the bureau. “The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day – whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans. We can’t wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it, and that’s why I am proud to appoint these fine individuals to get to work for the American people.”  

The opinion by the appeals court panel – all three judges are Republican appointees – is radical and sweeping. Adam Serwer, in a piece for Mother Jones, notes that if the appeals court decision were to be upheld – the Obama administration is likely to appeal it – it would invalidate NLRB decisions made since last January and also impact actions taken by the CFPB.

The CFPB, Serwer writes “has done what liberals hoped and Republicans feared: Prevented companies from gouging consumers with the kind of unscrupulous business practices that caused a nationwide economic meltdown four years ago. Although Cordray’s appointment is being challenged separately, Friday’s ruling gives companies impacted by CFPG’s decisions an opening to argue that some of the CFPB’s actions should be invalidated.”

But constitutional law experts argued at the time Obama made the recess appointments that he was on solid legal ground. In a Jan. 2012 piece for The Times, Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe said the president’s recess appointments “ought to be a slam dunk” and that the Constitution is clear on “reserving the authority the president needs to carry out his basic duties ….” 

As Ohio State University law school professor Peter M. Shane notes in a Jan. 25 blog post, the panel “held that recess appointments may occur only if the Senate is between sessions, for example, after it has adjourned for the first session of the 113th Congress, but before the 2nd session convents.”

According to Shane, the appeals court panel’s decision is likely on wobbly legal ground:

For all the controversy surrounding these appointments, they were clearly constitutional if either of two things is true.  They were constitutional if, despite the pro forma sessions, the Senate was in recess from December 20 until January 23.  If that hiatus amounted to a “recess” for purposes of Article II, Section 2, then the President’s exercise of his appointment prerogative was permissible.  The appointments would also be constitutional, of course, if the three-day hiatus between January 3 and January 6 was a “recess” for constitutional purposes.  The President had plausible arguments either way.

If the appeals court opinion, were left in place or upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, it would mark a ground-breaking departure from the way presidents have used recess appointments. As ACS President Caroline Fredrickson told Serwer, the appeals court ruling “is really a radical position to take. A president could be prevented from having any of his nominees confirmed.”