Constitutional Settlements and the Recess Appointments Clause

We have now learned a good deal (some might say too much) about the Recess Appointments Clause, and it is time to consider how this knowledge might be employed for the betterment of the Republic. The many open questions regarding the interpretation and application of the RAC are an invitation to constant disputation and uncertainty regarding the validity of recess appointments. The executive branch’s theories are broad enough to allow the President to fill any vacancy at virtually any time, and to keep it filled throughout his term (and beyond), without Senate participation. Meanwhile, there are respectable counter-arguments, some of which have enjoyed wide currency in Congress, that cast doubt on the validity of the vast majority of modern recess appointments.

This is not a healthy situation. As Donald Morgan notes in Congress and the Constitution 25 (1966), “satisfactory settlement of constitutional questions is . . . necessary [because] [f]ailure to achieve settlement may cause inconvenience, confusion, disorder, retaliation, violence, and even civil war.” In the present case it may also cause embarrassment, as politicians, lawyers and the like rush to switch sides depending on whose ox is being gored. (For an example, see Adam White’s cleverly titled “Confirmation Bias”).

But how to reach a constitutional settlement? Many would argue, or simply assume, that this can be achieved only by a Supreme Court decision. As the courts like to remind us incessantly, it is their province to “say what the law is.” Until they say, the theory goes, who knows what the law is?

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