(Washington Times)—In a case freighted with major constitutional implications, a federal appeals court on Friday overturned President Obama’s controversial recess appointments from last year, ruling he abused his powers and acted when the Senate was not actually in a recess.
The three-judge panel’s ruling is a major blow to Mr. Obama. The judges ruled that the appointments Mr. Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board are illegal, and the board no longer has a quorum to operate.
But the ruling has even broader constitutional significance, with the judges arguing that the president’s recess appointment powers don’t apply to “intrasession” appointments — those made when Congress has left town for a few days or weeks.
The judges signaled the power only applies after Congress has adjourned sine die, which is a legislative term of art that signals the end to a long work period. In modern times, it means the president could only use his powers when Congress quits business at the end of a year.
“The dearth of intrasession appointments in the years and decades following the ratification of the Constitution speaks far more impressively than the history of recent presidential exercise of a supposed power to make such appointments,” the judges wrote.
“Recent presidents are doing no more than interpreting the Constitution. While we recognize that all branches of government must of necessity exercise their understanding of the Constitution in order to perform their duties faithfully thereto, ultimately it is our role to discern the authoritative meaning of the supreme law.”
The case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court, and it turns on the definition of what the Constitution means when it says “recess.”
Last January Mr. Obama named union lawyer Richard Griffin and Labor Department official Sharon Block, both Democrats, and a Republican, NLRB lawyer Terence Flynn, to the labor board using his recess powers. He also named Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, using those same powers.
Noel Canning, a bottling company, sued the NLRB, arguing that a rule issued by the new board was illegal since the recess appointments were unconstitutional. Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined in the suit.
The appeals court panel, which sits in Washington, D.C., was skeptical of Mr. Obama’s case during oral argument in early December, with Chief Judge David B. Sentelle and Judge Thomas B. Griffith peppering the administration lawyers with questions.