Noel Canning v. NLRB: DC Circuit Court of Appeals Rules President Obama’s Recess Appointments were Invalid
On Friday, January 25, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, ruled that President Obama’s “recess appointments” of three National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members was unconstitutional. At issue was whether the President illegally invoked the Recess Appointments clause of Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution when he filled three existing vacancies on the NLRB during pro forma sessions of Congress (President Obama had maintained that Congress was actually not in session). Attorneys for Noel Canning argued that, since the recess appointments were illegal, the NLRB lacked a quorum when it ruled that the company violated various provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, and, therefore, the NLRB ruling was invalid and unenforceable. A three-member panel consisting of Chief Judge David Santelle, and Circuit Judges Thomas Griffith and Karen Henderson concurred.
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Excerpts from the ruling:
“We determine that the Board issuing the findings and order could not lawfully act, as it did not have a quorum, for reasons set forth more fully below.”
“While the posture of the petition is routine, as it developed, our review is not. In its brief before us, Noel Canning . . . questions the authority of the Board to issue the order on two constitutional grounds. First, petitioner asserts that the Board lacked authority to act for want of a quorum, as three members of the five-member Board were never validly appointed because they took office under putative recess appointments which were made when the Senate was not in recess. Second, it asserts that the vacancies these three members purportedly filled did not ‘happen during the Recess of the Senate,’ as required for recess appointments by the Constitution. U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 3. Because the Board must have a quorum in order to lawfully take action, if petitioner is correct in either of these assertions, then the order under review is void ab initio.”
“The [NLRB] Board contends that despite the failure of the President to comply with Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, he nonetheless validly made the appointments under a provision sometimes referred to as the ‘Recess Appointments Clause,’ which provides that ‘[t]he 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.’ Id. art. II, § 2, cl. 3. Noel Canning contends that the putative recess appointments are invalid and the Recess Appointments Clause is inapplicable because the Senate was not in the recess at the time of the putative appointments and the vacancies did not happen during the recess of the Senate. . . It is this difference between the word choice “recess” and “the Recess” that first draws our attention. When interpreting a constitutional provision, we must look to the natural meaning of the text as it would have been understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution.”
“All this points to the inescapable conclusion that the Framers intended something specific by the term ‘the Recess,’ and that it was something different than a generic break in proceedings.”
“Not only logic and language, but also constitutional history supports the interpretation advanced by Noel Canning, not that of the Board. When the Federalist Papers spoke of recess appointments, they referred to those commissions as expiring ‘at the end of the ensuing session.’ The Federalist No. 67, at 408 (Clinton Rossiter ed., 2003). For there to be an ‘ensuing session,’ it seems likely to the point of near certainty that recess appointments were being made at a time when the Senate was not in session — that is, when it was in ‘the Recess.’ Thus, background documents to the Constitution, in addition to the language itself, suggest that ‘the Recess’ refers to the period between sessions that would end with the ensuing session of the Senate.”
“As the Supreme Court observed in Freytag v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, ‘The manipulation of official appointments had long been one of the American revolutionary generation’s greatest grievances against executive power, because the power of appointment to offices was deemed the most insidious and powerful weapon of eighteenth century despotism.’ 501 U.S. 868, 883 (1991) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In short, the Constitution’s appointments structure — the general method of advice and consent modified only by a limited recess appointments power when the Senate simply cannot provide advice and consent — makes clear that the Framers used ‘the Recess’ to refer only to the recess between sessions.”
“As Chief Justice Marshall made clear in Marbury v. Madison, ‘[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.’ 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177. In Marbury, the Supreme Court established that if the legislative branch has acted in contravention of the Constitution, it is the courts that make that determination. In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the Supreme Court made clear that the courts must make the same determination if the executive has acted contrary to the Constitution. 343 U.S. 579 (1952). That is the case here, and we must strike down the unconstitutional act.”
“. . .the President made his three appointments to the Board on January 4, 2012, after Congress began a new session on January 3 and while that new session continued. 158 Cong. Rec. S1 (daily ed. Jan. 3, 2012). Considering the text, history, and structure of the Constitution, these appointments were invalid from their inception. Because the Board lacked a quorum of three members when it issued its decision in this case on February 8, 2012, its decision must be vacated.”
“The Constitution’s separation of powers features, of which the Appointments Clause is one, do not simply protect one branch from another. See Freytag, 501 U.S. at 878. These structural provisions serve to protect the people, for it is ultimately the people’s rights that suffer when one branch encroaches on another. As Madison explained in Federalist No. 51, the division of power between the branches forms part of the ‘security [that] arises to the rights of the people.’”
” . . . the filling up of a vacancy that happens during a recess must be done during the same recess in which the vacancy arose. There is no reason the Framers would have permitted the President to wait until some future intersession recess to make a recess appointment, for the Senate would have been sitting in session during the intervening period and available to consider nominations.”