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In Narrow Ruling, Supreme Court Invalidates 3 Obama Appointments

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that three appointments President Obama made in 2012 to the National Labor Relations Board are not valid because they were not approved by the Senate, which was in pro forma session at the time.

In a unanimous decision, the justices said the Constitution's recess-appointments clause gave Congress the power to decide when it is in recess, and that there was no recess when Obama acted. The case is National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning.

In reporting on the case in January, NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg provided this background:

"The Senate has never liked recess appointments and has tried different ways to discourage them. But presidents back to George Washington have made them, with the pace of these appointments accelerating in the 20th century, especially in the latter part of the century, with President Reagan leading the charge.

"The battle between the two branches reached a new high in 2012 when Republicans, facing a 20-day, mid-session recess, forced the Senate to conduct super-short sessions with the stipulation that no business would be conducted. Typically, these pro forma sessions would take place in a near-empty chamber, with a single senator, usually from nearby Virginia or Maryland, gaveling the session open, and then closed.

"The whole thing would last about 20 to 30 seconds. President Obama considered these sessions a fake, a legal fiction aimed at preventing him from making recess appointments, and so he went ahead and made three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which had been unable to enforce the nation's labor laws because it lacked a quorum."

Republicans and their allies in the business community challenged the appointments as unconstitutional, contending that the Senate had not been in recess. They won their case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the government appealed to the Supreme Court ..."

On Thursday, Justice Stephen Breyer said that in order to be considered a recess under the Constitution, a congressional break must last at least 10 days.

It's not clear what impact the decision will have. The Senate's Democratic majority recently changed the rules and made it harder for Republicans to block the president's appointments.

As The Associated Press notes, "[T]he outcome was the least significant loss possible for the administration. The justices, by a 5-4 vote, rejected a sweeping lower court ruling against the administration that would have made it virtually impossible for any future president to make recess appointments."

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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