June 26, 2014
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court reined in presidential power on Thursday, ruling that President Barack Obama went too far when he filled senior government posts without seeking U.S. Senate approval, but the justices stopped short of a more sweeping decision limiting executive authority.
In a ruling that will constrain future presidents, the court held on a 9-0 vote that the three appointments Obama made to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2012 were unlawful. The decision limits the ability of presidents to make so-called recess appointments without Senate approval.
Although the court was unanimous on the outcome, the nine justices were divided 5-4 on the legal reasoning. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a fiery opinion, joined by his conservative colleagues, saying he would have gone further in limiting the recess appointment power. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's regular swing vote, joined liberal colleagues in the majority.
The ruling comes at a time of partisan political fighting in Congress between Republicans and Obama.
Republicans have fought virtually every major Obama initiative since he took office in 2009 and they have accused the Democratic president of overstepping his constitutional authority.
The Supreme Court upheld the president's power to make recess appointments in between Senate sessions or recesses during a legislative session. Its narrow ruling said there is no recess when the Senate holds so-called pro forma sessions during which no business is conducted but the Senate is not formally adjourned.
"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," Scalia read from a court statement.
Thursday's majority decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, could especially hamper the Obama administration if Republicans win control of the Senate in Nov. 4 elections. They already control the House of Representatives.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling but noted that the decision "does preserve some important elements of the president’s executive authority, and he will not hesitate to use it."
The ruling has little immediate impact because Democrats, who currently control the Senate, pushed through a rule change in November 2013 that made it harder for Republicans to block the president’s nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said the ruling “underscores the importance” of the Senate rule change last year.
“Without that reform and with today’s ruling, a small but vocal minority would have more power than ever to block qualified nominees from getting a simple up-or-down vote,” he said.
Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said: "All Americans should be grateful for the court's rebuke of the administration." Republican senators had filed papers urging the court to rule against the administration.
Senators have the ability to delay or block altogether a president’s nominees, meaning they might never be confirmed.
Presidents of both parties have regularly used recess appointments. For example, Obama's predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, used this power to appoint John Bolton - a hero to many conservatives - as his U.N. ambassador in the face of staunch Democratic opposition in the Senate.