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The Third Circuit’s Recess Appointments Decision

Another appellate court has weighed in on the legality of President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. In NLRB v. New Vista Nursing & Rehabilitation, the Third Circuit held that “the Recess” in the Recess Appointments Clause refers only to the period between Senate sessions. Because the NLRB appointments were made during so-called “intra-session recesses,” the court concluded that they were illegal.

Although the Third Circuit reached the same result as did the D.C. Circuit in Noel Canning, the two opinions differ in some important respects. For example, while the D.C. Circuit placed a good deal of emphasis on the RAC’s use of the word “the” (as in “the Recess”), the Third Circuit declined to do so, finding the use of that word to be “uninformative.” Opinion at 57. The Third Circuit also declined to reach the issue of whether a vacancy must occur during a recess to be filled under the RAC. Opinion at 101 n.34.

The Third Circuit begins its analysis by identifying three possible meanings of “the Recess of the Senate”; (1) intersession breaks; (2) intersession breaks plus those intra-session breaks that last a non-negligible period (which the executive branch has historically identified, based on the Daugherty opinion, as more than ten days); and (3) “any time in which the Senate is not open for business and is unavailable to provide its advice and consent.” Opinion at 38. The last definition is, according to the court, the definition proffered by the NLRB.

The opinion looks at dictionary definitions (specifically Johnson’s dictionary) and legislative practice at the time of the framing, historical practice of the President and Congress under the RAC and other considerations, such as the need to adopt a definition of “recess” that provides a bright-line test that the political branches can rely upon. It finds some of these inconclusive, but most of them tend to cut against the second and/or third options, leaving the first (intersession breaks) as the most plausible meaning of the the “recess.” As John Elwood observes at the Volokh Conspiracy, the court places particular emphasis on the fact that recess appointments expire at the end of the “next Session.” It reasons that this durational provision must have been designed to ensure that recess appointments remain as an “auxiliary” method of appointment so that recess appointees serve “for only the time needed for the president and the Senate to have the opportunity to undergo the normal process.” Opinion at 75. If recess appointments could be made during intra-session breaks, then the Senate’s reconvening to continue the same session would have no effect on the recess appointment, which would continue even though the Senate was available to confirm a permanent appointment.. Opinion at 78.

In a rather rambling dissent, Judge Greenaway concludes that the “recess” must include both intersession and intra-session breaks. Adopting a functional approach, he argues that the purpose of the RAC is to allow the President to fill positions when the Senate is unavailable to provide advice and consent. Because the Senate is equally unavailable to provide advice and consent whether it is on an intersession or intra-session break, Judge Greenaway finds that the RAC must apply to both. Dissent at 6.

Although there is much to be commended in the majority opinion, it rests on a misconception (or at least an unexamined assumption) regarding the nature of a “session.” To which I will turn in my next post.

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