President Obama exceeded his authority by illegally appointing several National Labor Relations Board members without Senate approval in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In NLRB v. Canning, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned President Obama’s attempt to make three recess appointments to the NLRB during a brief three-day Senate break. The court allowed the president some leeway in making recess appointments in a closer 5-4 vote.
The president had claimed that the Senate was in recess during the 2012 holiday season, allowing him to make temporary recess appointments without seeking confirmation. The Senate had starkly opposed the appointment of the NLRB officials. The independent federal agency conducts elections for labor unions and investigates potential unfair labor practices.
But the court rejected the argument that the Senate was in recess. The chamber held brief sessions every three days when President Obama attempted to make his recess appointments. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that a congressional break must be at least 10 days in order to be considered a formal recess.
The court left open the possibility that the president may make recess appointments outside of the formal once-a-year break between sessions of Congress, reversing the ruling of a lower court which would have more strictly limited recess appointments.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a separate opinion that the majority opinion had allowed the president too much power to fill positions without Senate confirmation. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Scalia’s opinion.
The ruling gives Senate opposition to presidential appointments the ability to hold brief, “pro forma sessions” that will prevent recess appointments within 10 days.
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who filed an amicus brief with other Senate Republicans in the case, applauded the decision Thursday.
“I welcome the Supreme Court’s important decision today that the President’s so-called ‘recess’ appointments to the National Labor Relations Board two and one-half years ago were unconstitutional,” McConnell said in a statement. “This administration has a tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard those it doesn’t. In this case, that disturbing and dangerous tendency extended to the Constitution itself.”