Recess Appointment Litigation As A Means Of Constitutional Settlement

Today I will begin appraisal of the various methods of achieving constitutional settlement on the question of recess appointments. I will start with the judicial arena.

Pending Cases

There are currently at least two significant cases challenging the constitutionality of President Obama’s January 4, 2012 recess appointments.

A. Challenge to NLRB recess appointments. Noel Canning v. NLRB, now pending before the D.C. Circuit, challenges the authority of the National Labor Relations Board to exercise any authority (such as adjudicating labor disputes or promulgating rules) on the grounds that Obama’s recess appointments of three of the NLRB’s five members were invalid, thereby depriving the agency of a quorum.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sought to intervene on the side of Noel Canning. Its motion argues:

[T]he Recess Appointment Clause only allows the President to act when the Senate is in recess, and the Senate was not in recess at the time of these appointments. Indeed, the Senate could not constitutionally go into recess because Article I, § 5, cl. 4, prohibits the Senate from going into recess absent consent from the House of Representatives, and the House of Representatives did not give such consent here. The Senate conducted pro forma sessions twice weekly from December 20, 2011 until January 23, 2012- never going into recess- and the President thus lacked constitutional authority to issue appointments under the Recess Appointments Clause.

Chamber Motion to Intervene at 10 (emphasis in original). The Chamber contends that its intervention is necessary because Noel Canning “is a small, individual employer with limited resources” that has an incentive “to prevail on any ground possible– including, for example, fact-specific grounds that are unrelated to the critical constitutional issue presented by this case—at the lowest possible cost.” Id. at 13. The Chamber, by contrast, represents the broader perspective of thousands of businesses with “a strong interest in resolving the legality of the President’s recess appointments to the [NLRB] as expeditiously as possible.” Id.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have retained Miguel Estrada to file an amicus brief in this case. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained: “The president’s decision to circumvent the American people by installing his appointees at a  powerful federal agency, when the Senate was not in recess, and without obtaining the advice and consent of the Senate, is an unprecedented power grab. We will demonstrate to the court how the president’s unconstitutional actions fundamentally endanger the Congress’s role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch.”

B. Challenge to CFPB recess appointment. The second case is State National Bank of Big Spring v. Geithner, No. 1:12-cv-01032, which was filed on June 21, 2012 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and assigned to Judge Huvelle. The complaint alleges that the formation and operation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau violates separation of powers. It also contends that the January 4 recess appointment of CFPB’s first director, Richard Cordray, was invalid. The recess appointment, it says, was “an unconstitutional act that circumvented one of the few remaining (and only) checks on the CFPB’s formation and operation.” Complaint ¶ 79.

The complaint identifies three reasons why Cordray’s appointment was invalid: (1) “the Constitution gives the Senate the exclusive power to determine its rules, and the Senate declared itself to be in session;” (2) “the House of Representatives had not consented to a Senate adjournment of longer than three days, as it must to effect a recess;” and (3) “the Senate passed significant economic policy legislation during the session that the executive branch alleged to be a recess.” Complaint ¶¶ 81-83.

Note that the complaint counterposes “session” and “recess” so as to suggest that the Senate can only be in one of these states at any given time. Presumably, therefore, the plaintiffs intend to contest the executive branch position that the Senate can ever be in an “intrasession recess. Continue reading “Recess Appointment Litigation As A Means Of Constitutional Settlement”