Ruling limits president's recess appointments

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The Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday limited the president's power to fill high-level administration posts with temporary appointments, ruling in favor of Senate Republicans in their partisan clash with President Barack Obama.

But the justices stopped short of a more sweeping decision that would have effectively ended a president's power to make recess appointments when the Senate takes a break.

It was the high court's first case involving the Constitution's recess appointments clause, ending with a unanimous decision that Obama's appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 without Senate confirmation were illegal.

Obama had argued that the Senate was on an extended holiday break and that the brief sessions it held every three days — what lawmakers call "pro forma" — were a sham intended to prevent him from filling seats on the NLRB.

Rejecting that argument, Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion that the Senate is not in recess if lawmakers actually say they are in session and retain the power to conduct business. He said a congressional break has to last at least 10 days to be considered a recess under the Constitution.

The impact of the decision may be less important since Senate Democrats changed the rules to make it harder for the chamber's minority party — currently the GOP — to block Obama's nominations.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration disagreed with the court's ruling. But he said that while the White House was reviewing the decision, "we'll honor it."

The outcome was the least significant loss possible for the administration. The lower court had gone further, ruling that the only recess recognized by the Constitution is the once-a-year break between sessions of Congress. It also said that only vacancies that arise during that recess could be filled.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, said he would have upheld the reasoning of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

"The only remaining practical use for the recess-appointment power is the ignoble one of enabling presidents to circumvent the Senate's role in the appointment process, which is precisely what happened here," said Scalia, who took the unusual step of reading his concurrence from the bench.

The ruling's impact may be keenly felt by the White House next year if Republicans capture control of the Senate in the November election. The potential importance of the ruling lies in the Senate's ability to block the confirmation of judges and the leaders of independent agencies like the NLRB.

Republican leaders in both houses of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, praised the court for rejecting what they described as Obama's unconstitutional power grab. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the decision underscores the importance of the Senate rule change to make sure that a small number of senators cannot block qualified nominees.

Several hundred decisions the NLRB made with the recess-appointed members will now have to be re-decided by the current board. However, the result in most cases is likely to be the same, given similar pro-labor leanings of the current majority.

Obama has made relatively few recess appointments — 32 in his five-plus years in office, according to the Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush made 171 such appointments over two terms and President Bill Clinton filled 139 posts that way in his eight years in office.

But Obama was the first president to try to make recess appointments when Congress explicitly said it was not in recess. The Constitution requires that the Senate and House must get the other's consent for any break lasting longer than three days. At the end of 2011, the Republican-controlled House would not give the Democratic-led Senate permission for a longer break.

The partisan roles were reversed during Bush's presidency, when Senate Democrats sought ways to prevent the president from making recess appointments.

In fact, the very basis on which the justices decided the case — that the Senate can use extremely brief sessions to avoid a formal recess — was a tactic devised by Reid to frustrate Bush.

On a practical level, there may be little difference between how the court decided the case and the way Scalia wishes it had been decided, said Andy Pincus, a veteran Supreme Court lawyer in Washington.

"The recess appointment power has receded into practical irrelevance," Pincus said, pointing to the now-common Senate practice of blocking recess appointments by convening for pro forma sessions. "Today's decision likely cements that reality."

A recess appointment can last no more than two years. Recess appointees who subsequently won Senate confirmation include Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, two current NLRB members and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray.

The case challenging the appointments was brought by Noel Canning, a soft drink bottling company in Yakima, Washington. The company claimed an NLRB decision against it was not valid because the board members were not properly appointed and that the board therefore did not have enough members to do business.

Noel Canning prevailed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and two other appeals courts also had ruled against recess appointments.


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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.