What Did the Word 'the' Mean in 1755? And Why Does the Court Care?

A decision on Obama's recess appointment power shows why judicial originalism is an exciting game without any rules.

An etching from A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (Wikimedia Commons)

The early returns on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' sweeping "recess appointments" decisions are not favorable. Kenneth Jost of CQ Press called it "astounding." The three-judge panel went "on a tear," he adds. Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker called it an "extravagant act of judicial hubris," in which "three federal judges revealed themselves as Republican National Committeemen in robes." Prominent separation-of-powers theorist Peter Shane posted not one, or even two, but three criticisms of the decision. Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board, he wrote, "is a little like a Rob Schneider movie -- the more you think about it, the worse it seems."

Even some right-of-center commentators have expressed mixed emotions. In a Federalist Society podcast after the decision, Chapman University professor John Eastman praised the decision as a check on executive power tyranny. Michael Rappaport of the University of San Diego defends the decision against charges of partisanship, and told me in an email that he found the analysis basically correct.

Judicial originalism centers on the idea that one judge can somehow know the "real meaning" of a provision enacted centuries ago, in a world as alien to ours as Narnia.

But Michael Greve of George Mason wrote that the opinion seemed "a tad doctrinaire." Writing in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), John Yoo, formerly of the Bush Justice Department, blamed President Obama for setting up the situation, but cautioned that the opinion "has jeopardized a vital executive power for all future presidents." John Elwood, also a former Bush Justice official, mildly noted that "the panel would have benefited" from actual briefing on the questions it decided.

Noel Canning invalidates President Obama's recess appointments of three members of the National Labor Relations Board. Under the "recess appointments" clause of the Constitution, Article II § 2 cl. 3, "[t]he 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."

Obama had made his appointments during a period when the Senate -- because of a tricky maneuver by the Republican House -- was blocked from taking a full recess, but instead was holding one-minute, one-member "pro forma" sessions every three days at which no business was or could be conducted. This was the equivalent of a recess, Obama's lawyers reasoned, and so the clause permitted him to make temporary appointments.

The specific case is very close. The "pro forma" sessions maneuver is a novel one -- pioneered, in an exquisite irony, by Senator Harry Reid as a means of blocking appointments by the George W. Bush White House. A decision against the administration on the narrow issue of "pro forma" appointments would have had bad practical consequences -- the NLRB and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would have ground to a halt. But it would have been defensible as application of the Constitution's text, history, and structure to the existing body of legal precedent -- that is, as the kind of work we expect a court to do.

The three-judge panel of the D.C. circuit, however, went beyond the "pro forma" question and decided two issues that were arguably not even before it. First, it said, the president can make recess appointments only between formal sessions of Congress, not when the Senate is genuinely adjourned during a session. (Two-year Congresses are usually divided into two sessions, with typically a few weeks' gap at the end of the year between them.)

Second, it said that the recess power only applies if the vacancy itself arises between sessions. In other words, a job that comes open while Congress is in session can never be filled by a recess appointment, even if the Senate adjourns completely without acting on a nomination.

This broad, indeed radical, decision illustrates the problem with "originalism" as a method of deciding, rather than analyzing, cases. Evidence from the period when a constitutional provision was framed is always relevant to a judicial decision. But so are subsequent caselaw, interpretation by other branches, and simple practicality. A court that claims to have discovered the "right" answer as a matter of "original intent," or "original understanding," or "original public meaning," may consider itself freed from all that messy precedent and history.

Presented by

Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In