President Obama’s unprecedented “recess” appointments, made when the Senate was not in recess, struck me as rather obviously illegal. It turns out that Obama got an opinion from his Justice Department justifying his move. Our friend Michael McConnell is as qualified as anyone to assess the adequacy of the DOJ opinion; he does so here:
Today, January 12, 2012, the Administration released an Office of Legal Counsel opinion, dated January 6, opining that the recess appointments were constitutional. The Opinion concludes that the pro forma sessions of the Senate conducted every three days during the December and January holiday are not sufficiently substantive to interrupt a Senate recess, meaning that the Senate was in recess from December 17 well into January. …
[T]he Opinion places enormous weight on the fact that the Senate’s resolution providing for pro forma sessions declared that there would be “no business conducted.” There are two problems with this, as a legal matter. First, as the Opinion concedes, the important question is whether at these sessions the Senate is “capable” of exercising its constitutional functions – not whether, on any particular occasion, it has chosen not to do so. Second, in actual fact the Senate has conducted major business during these sessions, including passing the payroll tax holiday extension during a pro forma session on December 23. The Opinion weakly responds that, notwithstanding this evidence of actual practice, the President “may properly rely on the public pronouncements of the Senate that it will not conduct business.” It is hard to see why the Senate’s stated intention not to do business takes legal and constitutional precedence over its manifest ability to do so. The President is well aware the Senate is doing business on these days, because he has signed two pieces of legislation passed during them.
More fundamentally, the Opinion creates an implausible distinction between the legal efficacy of pro forma sessions for various constitutional purposes. According to the Opinion, a pro forma session is not sufficient to interrupt a recess for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, but it is sufficient to satisfy the constitutional command that neither branch adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other (Art. I, §cl. 4) and that Congress convene on January 3 unless a law has provided for a different day. There is longstanding precedent that pro forma sessions are sufficient to satisfy these constitutional requirements. Why a pro forma session would count for some purposes and not others is a mystery. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that OLC is simply fashioning rules to reach to the outcomes it wishes.
Finally, it bears mention that a great deal of the authority OLC cites in support of the President’s authority to make recess appointments during intrasession recesses in the first place – wholly apart from the pro forma issue – consists of prior executive branch pronouncements that are at odds with both the language and the history of the constitutional text. It would not be surprising if the judiciary were to reject these self-serving executive interpretations in favor of more straightforward ones. … It seems to me that the Administration is under special obligation to provide a bullet-proof legal argument when it declares invalid a strategy devised by Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2007, supported by then-Senator Barack Obama, and successfully used by them to stymie President George W. Bush’s recess appointment power. The law cannot change just because the shoe is on the other foot.
Given the extent to which Barack Obama and Eric Holder have politicized the Department of Justice, it is really not too surprising that in the view of Obama’s DOJ, the law really does depend on which party occupies the White House.