An interesting recess appointment issue has arisen in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Article VI, section 7, of the Virginia constitution provides that justices of the state supreme court, who serve for 12 year terms, “shall be chosen by the vote of a majority of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly.” Under Article V, section 7, the constitution also provides that “[t]he General Assembly shall, if it is in session, fill vacancies in all offices which are filled by election by that body.”
The governor, however, has the “power to fill vacancies in all offices of the Commonwealth for the filling of which the Constitution and laws make no other provision.” Va. Const., art. V, § 7. This includes making temporary appointments to fill supreme court vacancies when the General Assembly is not in session: “Gubernatorial appointments made to fill vacancies in offices which are filled by election by the General Assembly . . ., made during the recess of the General Assembly, shall expire at the end of thirty days after the commencement of the next session of the General Assembly.” Id.
These provisions came into play earlier this year when a sitting justice of the Virginia Supreme Court (LeRoy F. Millette, Jr.) announced his retirement effective at the end of July. Because the General Assembly was not in session, Governor McAuliffe recess appointed Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis. No one disputes that this was within the governor’s power under the above-cited provisions.
Matters became more complicated, though, when McAuliffe called a special session of the General Assembly to consider revising the state’s congressional districting map, which had been struck down by the federal courts. See Va. Const., art. IV, § 6 (“The Governor may convene a special session of the General Assembly when, in his opinion, the interest of the Commonwealth may require . . . .”). The General Assembly convened on August 17, 2015, pursuant to the governor’s call.
Once the special session convened, the General Assembly undeniably had the power to elect a “permanent” (i.e.. for the remainder of the 12-year term) replacement for Justice Millette. Republicans in the legislature attempted to elect another judge to fill the seat, but this move was blocked in the senate. The senate then voted to adjourn sine die. The house, however, neither adjourned nor consented to the senate’s adjournment.
Everyone agrees that when the General Assembly convened on August 17, it commenced the “next session” of the General Assembly following Roush’s recess appointment. Thus, the thirty-day clock started on August 17, and Roush’s appointment expired on September 16.
The controversy centers on whether the senate’s vote to adjourn sine die has ended the General Assembly’s special session. If not, the General Assembly remains in session and retains the power and responsibility to fill the seat that Judge Roush had temporarily occupied.
This is the view of the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. In a letter to the governor, the speaker relies primarily on the following provision of the Virginia constitution: “Neither house shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn to another place, nor for more than three days.” See Va. const., art. IV, § 6. This “clear, unambiguous and emphatic” language, according to the speaker, establishes that the senate cannot unilaterally end the General Assembly’s session. Thus, the senate’s adjournment sine die was ineffective and the General Assembly remains in session. Under the speaker’s position, the General Assembly’s session would not end until both houses agree to adjourn or until “dissolution by the efflux of their time,” which would presumably occur at the beginning of the new legislative session in 2016. Cf. House Rules and Manual § 590 (Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice).
The governor’s position, explained by his counsel Carlos L. Hopkins, is otherwise. Hopkins maintains that the senate’s adjournment sine die was effective. His primary argument is that the adjournments clause relied on by the speaker applies only to regular sessions, not to special sessions. As an additional (or possibly alternative) ground, he contends that “the lack of continuous activity or remaining business before the General Assembly argues against the body continuing to remain in session.”
Based on the legal position that the General Assembly was no longer in session, the governor gave Roush a second recess appointment after her first one expired.
Key to assessing these competing claims is understanding the history of the relevant provisions of the Virginia constitution and their relationship to the corresponding provisions in the U.S. Constitution. I do not purport to be an expert on the Virginia constitution, but I am well acquainted with the law and practice of recess appointments at the federal level (click on the “Recess Appointments” category to the right if you don’t believe me).
This background plus the research set forth below convinces me that the Virginia adjournments clause applies to special sessions and thus the senate’s adjournment on August 17 was ineffective. The argument that the General Assembly is no longer in session because it has ceased to conduct any business is somewhat stronger, but, for the reasons set forth below, the better view is that the General Assembly remains in session. Accordingly, Governor McAuliffe’s second recess appointment of Judge Roush appears to be invalid.