On June 26, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in NLRB v. Noel Canning et al., 573 U.S. ___ (2014), held in a unanimous decision that President Obama’s purported recess appointment of three members (Richard Griffin, Sharon Block and Terence Flynn) to the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012 was invalid. The opinion written by Justice Breyer was joined in by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Alito joined.
Some of Justice Breyer’s key points in his analysis were:
“Accordingly, we conclude that when the Senate declares that it is in session and possesses the capacity, under its own rules, to conduct business, it is in session for purposes of the [recess appointment] Clause.
“Applying this standard, we find that the pro forma sessions were sessions for purposes of the Clause. First, the Senate said it was in session. The Journal of the Senate and the Congressional Record indicate that the Senate convened for a series of twice-weekly “sessions” from December 20 through January 20. 2011 S. J. 923– 924; 158 Cong. Rec. S1–S11. (The Journal of the Senate for 2012 has not yet been published.) And these reports of the Senate “must be assumed to speak the truth.” Ballin, supra, at 4.
“Second, the Senate’s rules make clear that during its pro forma sessions, despite its resolution that it would conduct no business, the Senate retained the power to conduct business.
“Senate has enacted legislation during pro forma sessions even when it has said that no business will be transacted. Indeed, the Senate passed a bill by unanimous consent during the second pro forma session after its December 17 adjournment. 2011 S. J. 924. And that bill quickly became law. Pub. L. 112–78, 125 Stat. 1280.
“We thus hold that the Constitution empowers the President to fill any existing vacancy during any recess—intra-session or inter-session—of sufficient length.”
The justices split only over the question of whether the vacancy to be filled had to itself have occurred during the recess or whether it could have occurred prior to the recess. The majority held that the vacancy could occur prior to the recess, based on historical practice.
Justice Scalia, in his concurring opinion, argued that the vacancy to be filled by a recess appointment by the President had to occur during the recess and relied upon the following language contained in the Constitutional provision at issue:
“The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”
Thus this more restrictive view did not carry the day. However, the NLRB is now left with scores of cases which will have to decided again by the newly constituted Board, which was confirmed by the Senate.