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ArtII.S2.C3.1 Overview of Recess Appointments Clause

Article II, Section 2, Clause 3:

The 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.

The Recess Appointments Clause, authorizing the President to make temporary appointments when the Senate is not in session, was adopted by the Constitutional Convention without dissent and without debate regarding the intent and scope of its terms. In the Federalist No. 67, Alexander Hamilton refers to the recess appointment power as “nothing more than a supplement . . . for the purpose of establishing an auxiliary method of appointment, in cases to which the general method was inadequate.” It is generally accepted that the Clause was designed to enable the President to ensure the unfettered operation of the government during periods when the Senate was not in session and therefore unable to perform its advice and consent function. In addition to fostering administrative continuity, Presidents have exercised authority under the Recess Appointments Clause for political purposes, appointing officials who might have difficulty securing Senate confirmation.

Two fundamental textual issues arise when interpreting the Recess Appointments Clause. The first is the meaning of the phrase “the Recess of the Senate.” The Senate may recess both between and during its annual sessions,1 but the time period during which the President may make a recess appointment is not clearly answered by the text of the Constitution. The second fundamental textual issue is what constitutes a vacancy that “may happen” during the recess of the Senate. If the words “may happen” are interpreted to refer only to vacancies that arise during a recess, then the President would lack authority to make a recess appointment to a vacancy that existed before the recess began. For over two centuries the Supreme Court did not address either of these issues,2 leaving it to the lower courts and other branches of government to interpret the scope of the Recess Appointments Clause.3

The Supreme Court ultimately adopted a relatively broad interpretation of the Clause in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning.4 With respect to the meaning of the phrase “Recess of the Senate,” the Court concluded that the phrase applied to both inter-session recesses and intra-session recesses. In so holding, the Court, finding the text of the Constitution ambiguous,5 relied on (1) a pragmatic interpretation of the Clause that would allow the President to ensure the “continued functioning” of the federal government when the Senate is away,6 and (2) “long settled and established [historical] practice” of the President making intra-session recess appointments.7 The Court declined, however, to say how long a recess must be to fall within the Clause, instead holding that historical practice counseled that a recess of more than three days but less than ten days is “presumptively too short” to trigger the President’s appointment power under the Clause.8 With respect to the phrase “may happen,” the majority, again finding ambiguity in the text of the Clause,9 held that the Clause applied both to vacancies that first come into existence during a recess and to vacancies that initially occur before a recess but continue to exist during the recess.10 In so holding, the Court again relied on both pragmatic concerns11 and historical practice.12

Even under a broad interpretation of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate may limit the ability to make recess appointments by exercising its procedural prerogatives. The Court in Noel Canning held that, for the purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when the Senate says it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business.13 In this vein, Noel Canning provides the Senate with the means to prevent recess appointments by a President who attempts to employ the “subsidiary method” for appointing officers of the United States (i.e., recess appointments) to avoid the “norm” 14 for appointment (i.e., appointment pursuant to the Article II, Section 2, Clause 2).15

For a discussion of the procedural requirements that apply to “adjourn[ments],” see ArtI.S5.C4.1 Adjournment of Congress. back
See NLRB v. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 526 (2014). back
For lower court decisions on the Recess Appointments Clause, see, e.g., Evans v. Stephens, 387 F.3d 1220, 122627 (11th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 942 (2005); United States v. Woodley, 751 F.2d 1008, 1012 (9th Cir. 1985) (en banc), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1048 (1986); United States v. Allocco, 305 F.2d 704, 712 (2d Cir. 1962), cert. denied, 371 U.S. 964 (1963); In re Farrow, 3 Fed. 112 (C.C.N.D. Ga. 1880). For prior Executive Branch interpretations of the Recess Appointments Clause, see 25 Op. OLC 182 (2001); 20 Op. OLC 124, 161 (1996); 16 Op. OLC 15 (1992); 13 Op. OLC 271 (1989); 6 Op. OLC 585, 586 (1982); 3 Op. OLC 314, 316 (1979); 41 Op. Att’y Gen. 463 (1960); 33 Op. Att’y Gen. 20 (1921); 30 Op. Att’y Gen. 314 (1914); 26 Op. Att’y Gen. 234 (1907); 23 Op. Att’y Gen. 599 (1901); 22 Op. Att’y Gen. 82 (1898); 19 Op. Att’y Gen. 261 (1889); 18 Op. Att’y Gen. 28 (1884); 16 Op. Att’y Gen. 523 (1880); 15 Op. Att’y Gen. 207 (1877); 14 Op. Att’y Gen. 563 (1875); 12 Op. Att’y Gen. 455 (1868); 12 Op. Att’y Gen. 32 (1866); 11 Op. Att’y Gen. 179 (1865); 10 Op. Att’y Gen. 356 (1862); 4 Op. Att’y Gen. 523 (1846); 4 Op. Att’y Gen. 361 (1845); 3 Op. Att’y Gen. 673 (1841); 2 Op. Att’y Gen. 525 (1832); 1 Op. Att’y Gen. 631, 63334 (1823). For the early practice on recess appointments, see George Haynes, The Senate of the United States 77278 (1938). back
Noel Canning, 573 U.S. at 522–50 (2014). back
Id. at 526–29. More specifically, the Court found nothing in dictionary definitions or common usage contemporaneous to the Constitution that would suggest that an intra-session recess was not a recess. The Court noted that, while the phrase “the Recess” might suggest limiting recess appointments to the single break between sessions of Congress, the word “the” can also be used “generically or universally,” see, e.g., U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 5 (directing the Senate to choose a President pro tempore “in the Absence of the Vice-President” ), and that there were examples of “the Recess” being used in the broader manner at the time of the founding. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. at 526–29. back
Noel Canning, 573 U.S. at 528. ( “The Senate is equally away during both an inter-session and an intra-session recess, and its capacity to participate in the appointments process has nothing to do with the words it uses to signal its departure.” ). back
The Court noted that Presidents have made “thousands” of intra-session recess appointments and that presidential legal advisors had been nearly unanimous in determining that the clause allowed these appointments. Id. at 529. back
Id. at 538. The Court left open the possibility that some very unusual circumstance, such as a national catastrophe that renders the Senate unavailable, could require the exercise of the recess appointment power during a shorter break. Id. back
The Court noted, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson thought the phrase in question could point to both vacancies that “may happen to be” during a recess as well as those that “may happen to fall” during a recess. Id. at 539 (emphasis added). back
Id. at 518–20. back
Id. at 542–43 ( “[W]e believe the narrower interpretation risks undermining constitutionally conferred powers [in that] . . . [i]t would prevent the President from making any recess appointment that arose before a recess, no matter who the official, no matter how dire the need, no matter how uncontroversial the appointment, and no matter how late in the session the office fell vacant.” ). back
Id. at 543 ( “Historical practice over the past 200 years strongly favors the broader interpretation. The tradition of applying the Clause to pre-recess vacancies dates at least to President James Madison.” ). back
Id. In the context of Noel Canning, the Court held that the Senate was in session even during a pro forma session, a brief meeting of the Senate, often lasting minutes, in which no legislative business is conducted. Id. at 554–56. Because the Journal of the Senate (and the Congressional Record) declared the Senate in session during those periods, and because the Senate could, under its rules, have conducted business under unanimous consent (a quorum being presumed), the Court concluded that the Senate was indeed in session. In so holding, the Court deferred to the authority of Congress to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” see U.S. Const. art. I, § 5, cl. 2, relying on previous case law in which the Court refused to question the validity of a congressional record. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. at 555 (citing United States v. Ballin, 144 U.S. 1, 5 (1892)). back
Noel Canning, 573 U.S. at 556–57. back
It should be noted that, by an act of Congress, if a vacancy existed when the Senate was in session, the ad interim appointee, subject to certain exceptions, may receive no salary until he has been confirmed by the Senate. 5 U.S.C. § 5503 (2012). By targeting the compensation of appointees, as opposed to the President’s recess appointment power itself, this limitation acts as an indirect control on recess appointments, but its constitutionality has not been adjudicated. A federal district court noted that “if any and all restrictions on the President’s recess appointment power, however limited, are prohibited by the Constitution,” restricting payment to recess appointees might be invalid. Staebler v. Carter, 464 F. Supp. 585, 596 n.24 (D.D.C. 1979). back