A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that President Barack Obama violated the U.S. Constitution when he used recess appointments to fill a labor board, in a sweeping decision that could limit presidential power to push through federal nominees.
The court found that the Senate was not truly in recess, for the purpose of a recess appointment, when Obama in January 2012 installed three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
The nominees were facing stiff Republican opposition, and the appointments caused an uproar at the time. Republicans argued that Obama undercut the Senate's power to confirm nominees because although most of its members were out of town, the Senate had not formally adjourned.
In a surprisingly broad ruling, the three-judge panel rejected not only the NLRB appointments but any made while the Senate is in session but on a break. That could limit recess appointments to only a few weeks a year.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also ruled that recess appointments could only be used for positions that become vacant while the Senate is in recess.
"If the decision stands, it would be a significant reduction of the president's recess power," said John Elwood, a Washington lawyer who was deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2005 through 2009.
"This is a big, big decision for executive power," Elwood said. "It is one of the most important decisions in decades."
More immediately, the ruling casts doubt on the ability of the NLRB, an independent agency that oversees labor disputes, to conduct its business if it does not have enough members. Its recent rulings may also be vulnerable to challenge.
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