If Presidential Appointees Were Tea Leaves, Here’s How They’d Read
A Supreme Court ruling Thursday came as a rebuff to President Barack Obama’s attempted recess period appointments. He sought to pass appointments without Senate confirmation, an issue taken to the Supreme Court where he subsequently lost. The ruling served as both a check on executive power and a failed dodge of congressional gridlock, but those within the Obama administration have pointed out that the ruling could have been far more restrictive on executive power than the Justices chose to be. In that sense, much as April appointments ultimately proved to be act as predictive for the conditions in Washington at present, the Supreme Court ruling has its own implications.
For example, it reflects slightly on House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) plans to sue Obama over the president’s recent slew of executive orders. Boehner claims they are an overstep on his power, and that “The constitution makes it clear that a president’s job is to faithfully execute the laws. In my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws” — according to USA TODAY. Some, including Obama, believe the suit is political maneuvering with very little weight behind it.
Depending on how you look at it, the Supreme Court’s ruling may either be a sign that the court is moderate on reigning in presidential power, as the ruling could have been much more restrictive than it ultimately was, or a sign that the courts are open to constraining some of the powers in favor of what some argue is a better balance. Of course, the suit would likely not make it all the way up the chain of courts for some years, but Boehner says his concerns over the balance of power will remain. “This is about defending the institution,” he told The Washington Post.
In April Obama faced a great deal of opposition in trying to push his nominees through Congress in what was eventually a bipartisan struggle, with Democrats and Republicans both objecting to some of his candidate choices. At the time it was considered a possible sign of difficulty to come, that he could be looking at two more years of blocked or delayed nominations and a general atmosphere of non-cooperation and efficiency. This has proven to be true, at least in the months that have passed so far.
The court opinion delivered Thursday on his latest set of appointments was given by Judge Stephen Breyer and signed onto Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan. A concurring opinion was given by John Roberts and signed onto by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The former began by examining the scope of the language seen in the Recess Appointments Clause — the item under which Obama would justify his appointments. Three questions were raised as to the legitimacy of President Obama’s activity, dealing with whether or not a “recess” meant intersessions or intrasessions or both, whether “vacancies” refer only to those coming up during a recess or prior to, and how long a “recess” must be for the clause to apply.
The fact that only the third question found Obama to be in error is a more lenient and open route than the court could have chosen to take, limiting instead on only one set of terminology. The court found that the three day recess in question was not of sufficient length. The secondary opinion reveals just how lenient the majority ruling was when compared to how a more conservative reading of the clause could have taken it. “The Court’s decision transforms the recess-appointment power from a tool carefully designed to fill a narrow and specific need into a weapon to be wielded by future Presidents against future Senates,” reads the concurring judgement. “Today’s Court agrees that the appointments were invalid, but for the far narrower reason that they were made during a three-day break in the Senate’s session. On its way to that result, the majority sweeps away the key textual limitations on the recess-appointment power,” it says.
The end result of the case is the same: Obama’s appointees will see Senate review, and he is likely to face continued difficulty with his labor department appointees. However, the narrow nature of the majority opinion does appear to bode well for President Obama and the balance of executive power in the more general sense. The White House commentary on the matter is rather representative of this, with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest saying,”We’re, of course, deeply disappointed in today’s decision. We are, however, pleased that the court recognized the president’s executive authority as exercised by presidents going all the way back to George Washington,” according to The New York Times.
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