Noel Canning: Does It All Depend On What The Meaning Of “The” Is?

In Noel Canning v. NLRB (Jan. 25, 2013), the D.C. Circuit held that President Obama’s January 4, 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were constitutionally invalid because the Senate was in an intrasession adjournment at the time. The court held that only a period of intersession adjournment constitutes “the Recess” of the Senate within the meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause.

The court has been the subject of some justifiable criticism (see Professors Garrett Epps here and Eric Posner here) for its emphasis on the fact that the RAC refers to “the Recess,” rather than “a Recess.” In the court’s estimation, this fact leads to the “inescapable conclusion” the Framers intended “something specific” by “the Recess.” The court concludes that the Framers must have used “the Recess” to mean something narrower and more specific than any break in the proceedings. It contrasts the Constitution’s use of “the Recess,” which appears only in the RAC and the Senate Vacancies Clause, with its use of the terms “adjourn” and “adjournment” to signify any break in proceedings.

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Recess Appointment News

The Justice Department will not seek en banc rehearing of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Noel Canning, but will seek certiorari instead (the deadline for filing is April 25). Assuming the Court grants the petition (which, pretty much everyone seems to agree, seems likely), arguments will be heard in the fall. It is worth noting that the NLRB recess appointments at issue will expire, even under the administration’s legal theory, no later than January 2014.

A forthcoming student note, by Amelia Frenkel of NYU Law School, argues that the Recess Appointments Clause does not apply to newly-created offices because such unfilled offices are not “vacancies” or are not vacancies that “happen” within the meaning of the RAC. It follows from this argument that President Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to become the first director of the CFPB was invalid.

Six Answers for Six Puzzles

Over at The Originalism Blog, Professor Michael Ramsey has given his answers to Professor Seth Barrett Tillman’s “Six Puzzles” on the Constitution’s various uses of the terms “officers” and “offices.” FWIW, I tend to agree with all of Ramsey’s answers with one possible exception.

That relates to the first puzzle, which involves the Succession Clause’s provision that “Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President . . . .” The question is whether the term “Officer” encompasses legislative officers (if the answer is no, then it was unconstitutional for Congress to place the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate in the line of succession).

Ramsey and Tillman believe that because the Succession Clause uses the broad term “Officer,” rather than a possibly narrower formulation such as “Officer of the United States” or “Officer under the United States,” as the Constitution does elsewhere, legislative officers must be covered. Given the Constitution’s varied usages of the terms “officer” and “office,” I find the term ambiguous. Structural and other evidence casts doubt on whether legislative officers were meant to be included. For example, in Article VI the Oath Clause applies to “Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States.” I find it difficult to believe that the Framers deliberately decided to exclude non-member legislative officers from being bound by oath, yet decided to include them in the Succession Clause. It seems more likely that the term “Officers” standing alone was understood to include either executive officers only, or both executive and judicial officers, but that legislative officers were not understood to be “Officers” in the same sense, or were simply considered so unimportant as to be not worth mentioning.

The Nuclear Option, the Law of the Senate and the Conscientious Senator

This is my final post (at least for this Congress, hopefully) on the filibuster and the entrenchment of Senate rules. For the first 9 entries in this series, see below:

Legal Scholar Letter to the Senate on Procedures for Changing the Rules

Professor Bruhl and Senate Continuity

Professor Chemerinsky and Senate Precedent on Changing the Rules

Senate Rules from the Internal Point of View

Entrenchment and the Academic “Consensus”

Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part I)

Entrenchment Reconsidered (Part II)

Professor Chafetz and the “Constitutionally Conscientious Senator”

Did the Senate Flub Its Cinderella Moment?

In this post, I will consider the so-called “nuclear option,” its legality or legitimacy under the law of the Senate, and how a “constitutionally conscientious Senator” should vote with respect to its exercise.

The “nuclear option” (also sometimes called the “constitutional option”) may be defined as the use of a parliamentary ruling to declare the Senate rules unconstitutional insofar as they require a supermajority to end debate on a proposed change to the rules. If such a ruling were upheld by a simple majority, it would no longer be possible for a minority of senators to block rules changes (depending on the scope of the ruling, either at the beginning of a Congress or at any time). This would effectively end the (allegedly) unconstitutional entrenchment of the Senate rules claimed by the signatories to the December 12 legal scholar letter.

As explained below, I believe that the “nuclear option” is most reasonably understood as illegal under the existing law of the Senate, in the sense that its use would require overruling a substantial body of Senate precedent. Furthermore, it is believed by most senators, including some that would be willing to invoke the nuclear option if need be, that its use would entail, at the very least, substantial institutional costs in terms of the stability and perceived legitimacy of the Senate’s legal system. At the most, the nuclear option would effectively destroy the Senate’s existing legal system and require the creation of a new system of rules and precedents more or less resembling the House’s majoritarian procedures.

The Senate has previously declined to exercise the nuclear option on a number of occasions, including in 2005 when the Republican majority considered using it to abolish the filibuster with respect to judicial nominations and, most recently, on January 24, 2013, when the Democratic majority considered using it to enact major reforms to the filibuster generally. The evidence from these episodes indicates that many senators, including the “swing senators” (majority senators who refused or were reluctant to support the use of the nuclear option), were concerned about both the legitimacy of the nuclear option under the law of the Senate and the practical effects that it would have on the Senate as an institution.

Rather than trying to convince senators that they misunderstand the Senate’s own traditions and precedents, or that they overstate the likely institutional consequences of the nuclear option, it seems to me that the scholars and academics who have opined on these issues would provide a more useful service to the Senate by proposing constitutional solutions that can reasonably be achieved under the Senate’s existing rules. At the conclusion of this post, I suggest one possible solution.

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