In a case freighted with major constitutional implications, a federal appeals court on Friday overturned President Obama’s controversial recess appointments from last year, ruling he abused his powers and acted when the Senate was not actually in a recess.
The three-judge panel’s ruling is a major blow to Mr. Obama. The judges ruled that the appointments he made to the National Labor Relations Board are illegal, and the board no longer has a quorum to operate.
But the ruling has even broader constitutional significance, with the judges arguing that the president’s recess appointment powers don’t apply to “intrasession” appointments — those made when Congress has left town for a few days or weeks.
The judges signaled the power only applies after Congress has adjourned a session permanently, which in modern times usually means only at the end of a year. If the ruling withstands Supreme Court scrutiny, it would dramatically constrain presidents in the future.
And the court ruled that the only vacancies that the president can use his powers on are ones that arise when the Senate is in one of those end-of-session breaks. That would all but eliminate the list of positions the president could fill with his recess powers.
But the court said in the ruling that its duty was not to speed up government, but to hold to constitutional principles.
“If some administrative inefficiency results from our construction of the original meaning of the Constitution, that does not empower us to change what the Constitution commands,” the judges wrote.