President Barack Obama violated the Constitution when he bypassed the Senate last year to appoint three members of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a decision that could severely limit a chief executive’s power to make recess appointments.
The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit marked a victory for Republicans and business groups critical of the labor board. If it stands, it could invalidate hundreds of board decisions over the past year, including some that make it easier for unions to organize.
When Obama filled the vacancies on Jan. 4, 2012, Congress was on an extended break. But GOP lawmakers gaveled in for a few minutes every three days just to prevent Obama from making recess appointments. The White House argued that the pro forma sessions, some lasting less than a minute, were a sham.
The court rejected that argument but went even further, finding that under the Constitution, a recess occurs only during the breaks between formal year-long sessions of Congress, not just any informal break when lawmakers leave town. It also held that presidents can bypass the Senate only when administration vacancies occur during a recess.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration strongly disagrees with the decision and that the labor board would continue to conduct business as usual, despite calls by some Republicans for the board members to resign.
“The decision is novel and unprecedented,” Carney said. “It contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations.”
Under the court’s decision, 285 recess appointments made by presidents between 1867 and 2004 would be invalid.