How the Recess Appointments Case Speaks to Foreign Relations Law

by Peter Spiro

Not much surprise that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the recess appointments case NLRB v. Noel Canning would draw on historical practice, since there wasn’t much else to draw on. Breyer’s opinion in the case sets out a notable defense of practice as precedent:

[I]n interpreting the [Recess Appointments] Clause, we put significant weight upon historical practice. For one thing, the interpretive questions before us concern the allocation of power between two elected branches of Government. Long ago Chief Justice Marshall wrote that

“a doubtful question, one on which human reason may pause, and the human judgment be suspended, in the decision of which the great principles of liberty are not concerned, but the respective powers of those who are equally the representatives of the people, are to be adjusted; if not put at rest by the practice of the government, ought to receive a considerable impression from that practice.” McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 401 (1819).

And we later confirmed that “[l]ong settled and established practice is a consideration of great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions” regulating the relationship between Congress and the President. The Pocket Veto Case, 279 U. S. 655, 689 (1929) ; see also id., at 690 (“[A] practice of at least twenty years duration ‘on the part of the executive department, acquiesced in by the legislative department, . . . is entitled to great regard in determining the true construction of a constitutional provision the phraseology of which is in any respect of doubtful meaning’ ” (quoting State v. South Norwalk, 77 Conn. 257, 264, 58 A. 759, 761 (1904))).

We recognize, of course, that the separation of powers can serve to safeguard individual liberty, Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U. S. 417–450 (1998) (Kennedy, J., concurring), and that it is the “duty of the judicial department”—in a separation-of-powers case as in any other—“to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). But it is equally true that the longstanding “practice of the government,” McCulloch, supra, at 401, can inform our determination of “what the law is,” Marbury, supra, at 177.

That principle is neither new nor controversial. As James Madison wrote, it “was foreseen at the birth of the Constitution, that difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally arise in expounding terms & phrases necessarily used in such a charter . . . and that it might require a regular course of practice to liquidate & settle the meaning of some of them.” Letter to Spencer Roane (Sept. 2, 1819), in 8 Writings of James Madison 450 (G. Hunt ed. 1908). And our cases have continually confirmed Madison’s view. E.g., Mistretta v. United States, 488 U. S. 361, 401 (1989) ; Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U. S. 654, 686 (1981) ; Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579–611 (1952) (Frankfurter, J., concurring); The Pocket Veto Case, supra, at 689–690; Ex parte Grossman, 267 U. S. 87–119 (1925); United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U. S. 459–474 (1915); McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U. S. 1, 27 (1892) ; McCulloch, supra; Stuart v. Laird, 1 Cranch 299 (1803).

These precedents show that this Court has treated practice as an important interpretive factor even when the nature or longevity of that practice is subject to dispute, and even when that practice began after the founding era. See Mistretta, supra, 400–401 (“While these [practices] spawned spirited discussion and frequent criticism, . . . ‘traditional ways of conducting government . . . give meaning’ to the Constitution” (quoting Youngstown, supra, at 610) (Frankfurter, J., concurring)); Regan, supra, at 684 (“[E]ven if the pre-1952 [practice] should be disregarded, congressional acquiescence in [a practice] since that time supports the President’s power to act here”); The Pocket Veto Case, supra, at 689–690 (postfounding practice is entitled to “great weight”); Grossman, supra, at 118–119 (postfounding practice “strongly sustains” a “construction” of the Constitution).

There is a great deal of history to consider here. Presidents have made recess appointments since the beginning of the Republic. Their frequency suggests that the Senate and President have recognized that recess appointments can be both necessary and appropriate in certain circumstances. We have not previously interpreted the Clause, and, when doing so for the first time in more than 200 years, we must hesitate to upset the compromises and working arrangements that the elected branches of Government themselves have reached.

Strike another blow against constitutional formalism. For proof, see Scalia’s dissent cum concurrence in the judgment, which plays heavily to Chadha. Scalia sees in the majority opinion’s use of history an “adverse possession theory of executive power” (though Scalia himself is forced to play on its turf and engage the practice, including modern practice). Perhaps, such is life.

The use of history is obviously prominent in the foreign relations context, given the dearth of judicial precedent for so many foreign relations law questions (though the courts have been busy trying to fill many gaps in recent years, there are still many left unfilled). Next year’s engagement with the recognition power in Zivitovsky will surely be looking to practice, including practice post-dating the founding era, and the Noel Canning methodology gives it a recent launching point. For those who need the Court’s imprimatur on what qualifies as constitutional authority, this decision reminds us that it’s on board with history-as-law, too.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/07/02/recess-appointments-case-speaks-foreign-relations-law/

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