A Recess By Any Other Name

We now come to the issue that has been much discussed in connection with President Obama’s January 4, 2012 recess appointments: what constitutes a “recess” within the meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause? The RAC, you will recall, provides that “[t]he 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.” (emphasis added).

Recess and Session

Although the Constitution does not define the terms “recess” or “session,” at the time of the framing there would have been little reason to question the meaning of these terms. As discussed in my original post, the Framers would have understood the “session” to consist of the time that Congress (or in some cases the Senate alone) was assembled at the seat of government, while the “recess” was the time between sessions when members of Congress returned to their homes.

The notion of Congress being in “recess” and in “session” simultaneously would have made little sense, sort of like describing someone as being asleep and awake at the same time. The understanding of these terms as mutually exclusive can be seen, for example, in the Act of March 3, 1791, which dealt with the appointment of duties inspectors and provided “if the appointment of inspectors . . . shall not be made during the present session of Congress, the President may, and he is hereby empowered to make such appointments during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” 1 Stat. 199, 200. It is evident from this usage that the “recess” is the period between the “present session” and the “next session.”

The relationship between session and recess was more explicitly stated by Senator Gore when he observed, during the 1814 debate, that “[t]he time of the Senate consists of two periods, viz: their session and their recess.”

There is no reason to believe that Gore thought this statement in any way controversial. Rather he was merely making a foundational observation for his argument that a vacancy must “happen” during the recess for the RAC to apply. Attorney General Wirt, while disagreeing with Gore on the definition of “happen,” shared his understanding of the relationship between the recess and the session. Wirt explained:

The constitution does not look to the moment of the origin of the vacancy, but to the state of things at the point at time at which the President is called on to act. Is the Senate in session? The he must make a nomination to that body. Is it in recess? Then the President must fill the vacancy by a temporary commission.

(emphasis added). Clearly Wirt did not believe that the Senate could be “in session” and “in recess” at the same time.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, in its 1868 report, similarly noted:

 We think the language too clear to admit of reasonable doubt, and that, upon principles of just construction, this period [when the vacancy must “happen”] must have its inceptive point after one session has closed and before another session has begun. It cannot, we think, be disputed that the period of time designated in the [RAC] as “the recess of the Senate,” includes the space beginning with the indivisible point in time which next follows that at which it adjourned, and ending with that which next precedes the moment of the commencement of their next session.

 What the Committee said “cannot be disputed”—namely that the recess consists of the period of time between the adjournment of one session and the commencement of the next—was apparently not disputed by anyone.

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