Supreme Court Rules That Even a Sham Recess is Still a Recess

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 9:47 AM EDT

See? If you take President Obama to court over an issue of executive overreach, you might win:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday limited the president’s power to fill high-level vacancies with temporary appointments, ruling in favor of Senate Republicans in their partisan clash with President Barack Obama.

The court’s first-ever case involving the Constitution’s recess appointments clause ended in a unanimous decision holding that Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 without Senate confirmation were illegal.

Republicans had argued that the Senate wasn't really in recess when Obama made those appointments. Obama argued that, in practice, the Senate was indeed in recess, and simply gaveling open a few pro forma "sessions" during the break didn't change that. In this case, the justices decided to go with the letter of the law, and Obama lost.

This result doesn't bother me much. I actually agree with Obama that these pro forma sessions are shams, but sometimes the law allows you to get away with technicalities like this. In any case, it's good that we have a definitive ruling here.

On the other hand, the related ruling on a tea party hobbyhorse—that virtually all recess appointments are illegal anyway because the only real recess is the annual end-of-year break—is more problematic. This one struck me as completely ridiculous and contrary to 200 years of precedent, but the court rejected it only by a 5-4 margin. That's four votes for an entirely invented bit of nonsense, and that's not a good sign.