US & Canada

US high court to hear Obama appointments case

The US Supreme Court Building is seen in this 31 March 2012 file photo
Image caption Analysts say the court could enable the Senate opposition to block appointments indefinitely

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on President Barack Obama's authority to bypass the Senate in making high-level appointments.

Under the US constitution, many of the president's top appointments require Senate confirmation - unless the Senate is in recess.

But with Senate Republicans routinely blocking confirmation, Mr Obama has resorted to recess appointments.

The plaintiffs in the suit hope to curtail Mr Obama's authority to do so.

The case centres on three appointments Mr Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which hears organised labour disputes.

After Senate Republicans had blocked the appointments, Mr Obama resorted to his recess appointment authority in January 2012, while the Senate and much of Washington was on holiday.

But in an explicit move to prevent Mr Obama from filling positions through recess appointments, Senate leaders had arranged for senators who live near Washington DC to open momentary "pro forma" sessions.

In those, essentially, a senator banged the gavel in the empty chamber, pronounced the Senate in session, then banged the gavel again to close it.

The court case, known as Noel Canning v National Labor Relations Board, was filed by a Washington state bottling company that argued an NLRB decision against it was not valid because the board members were not properly appointed.

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit subsequently ruled the NLRB appointments unconstitutional because the Senate had not technically been in recess. The Obama administration appealed that court's ruling to the Supreme Court.

In its order accepting the case on Monday, the Supreme Court asked each side to address whether the president can make recess appointments during such pro forma sessions.

If the lower court's decision stands, it could invalidate hundreds of labour board decisions made in 2012. At least 150 labour board cases have been put on hold pending the Supreme Court's decision.

'Sham' sessions

A Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court ruling would also give the Senate minority the power to block presidential appointments indefinitely, analysts say.

The court will not hear the case until October at the earliest, when it begins a new session.

In January, the White House criticised the appeals court ruling.

"It contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations," spokesman Jay Carney said at the time.

Recess appointments have been used since George Washington's time as president, and on three earlier occasions, federal appeals courts have upheld such appointments.

Democrats used similar pro-forma sessions to block recess appointments during President George W Bush's second term.

But now, the White House argues the sessions over the holiday break, some lasting only a few minutes, were a sham.

Several Republicans have hailed the original decision by the three conservative judges on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

House Speaker John Boehner said it was "a victory for accountability in government", while Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said it would "go a long way toward restoring the constitutional separation of powers".

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