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Recess Games

           The Obama administration announced this week that the President will give a recess appointment to Donald Berwick to serve as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  The appointment will come during the Senate’s current eleven and a half day adjournment for the Independence Day holiday. 

            Berwick was nominated for the position in April, but the Senate Finance Committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the nomination.  The recess appointment was denounced not only by Senate Republicans, but by Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who stated: “Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power and protects Montanans and all Americans by ensuring that crucial questions are asked of the nominee — and answered.” 

            The Recess Appointments Clause (U.S. Const., art. II, sect. 2, cl. 3) provides: “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.”  This provision raises two basic interpretative issues: (1) what constitutes “the recess” of the Senate referred to in the clause? and (2) what does it mean for a vacancy to “happen during” such a recess? 

            A number of legal scholars have argued that “the recess” referred to in the clause is the recess between sessions of Congress, which normally occurs only once a year.  The intrasession periods of adjournment are not recesses within the meaning of the clause, they argue, and the President has no constitutional power to recess appoint anyone during those periods.  In addition, some scholars argue that a recess appointment can only be made if the vacancy has arisen during that recess.  A vacancy that has occurred earlier did not “happen during” that recess, and therefore is not eligible for a recess appointment.  Professor Michael Rappaport laid out these two arguments in his article, The Original Meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause, 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1487 (2005).   

            If either of these arguments is correct, President Obama’s appointment of Berwick is unconstitutional.  I will leave consideration of the merits of these arguments for another day.  For present purposes, I would just note that one of the foremost academic supporters of the Rappaport position is Marty Lederman, formerly a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.  Lederman was outspoken in criticizing President Bush’s recess appointments on the grounds that they violated the Recess Appointments Clause as properly interpreted.  Lederman, for example, was on the legal team that filed a brief (on behalf of the late Senator Edward Kennedy) challenging the constitutionality of Bush’s recess appointment of Judge William Pryor to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

            In addition, Lederman criticized Bush’s recess appointments on the grounds that, regardless of whether they complied literally with the Clause, they constituted abuses of the recess appointment power because they were designed for no purpose other than to circumvent the Senate’s advice and consent function.  For example, Lederman argued that recess appointments made during an eleven and a half day Senate adjournment were  obviously not for the purposes intended by the Clause, namely to deal with emergencies where the Senate was unavailable to provide its consent.  Instead, he contended that such appointments “make a mockery of the procedure contemplated in the Appointments Clause” and represented “constitutional cynicism of the highest order.” 

            Lederman now serves as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.  Which naturally raises the question—has he advised Obama that Donald Berwick is unconstitutional?

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