In a recent post on the Recess Appointments Clause, I argued that the current method (the multi-session recess appointment theory) for determining the tenure of a recess appointee is based on “precedent” which does not amount to a hill of beans. It is time now to consider afresh the question of how one ought to determine the end of the Senate’s “next session” for purposes of the RAC.
The Reciprocal Meaning of Recess and Session
Discussion of the term “recess” has generally agreed that it may refer, both today and at the time the Constitution was written, to suspensions of business of any duration. With regard to today’s usage, Professor Hartnett notes “as anyone who has ever attended elementary school, a committee meeting, or a trial can attest, a ‘recess’ is quite frequently a rather short break.” With regard to usage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the 11th Circuit states that “recess” was “a general term for the suspension of business,” pointing to Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755) and Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language” (1828).
The term “session,” as used today, can refer to “a single continuous sitting, or period of sitting, of persons so assembled,” or “a continuous series of sittings or meetings of a court, legislature, or the like.” Thus, we might refer to “the afternoon session,” or “today’s session,” or the “fall session.” The degree of continuity is relative; saying that the Senate is “in session” might mean that Senators are currently on the floor conducting business, or that the Senate is conducting business today, or that the Senate is “in town” and meeting from time to time.
Although both “recess” and “session” can be used in different senses, one sense is as mutually exclusive statuses of a legislative body. As Senator Gore explained in 1814, “[t]he time of the Senate consists of two periods, viz: their session and their recess.”
This usage of the terms “session” and “recess,” which Hartnett terms the “reciprocal” usage, was recognized in the 18th century. Thus, Johnson’s dictionary defines “session” as “an assembly of magistrates or senators” or “the space for which an assembly sits without intermission or recess.” Put another way, a “recess” would break the continuity of a “session” and thereby end it. An “intra-session recess” would therefore be oxymoronic.