In October 2013, a reporter asked Justice Antonin Scalia what he thought about the government shutdown. The gregarious justice replied, “I have a deal with the Congress. I leave them alone. They leave me alone.” He was exactly right. The monastic Supreme Court is formally isolated from the political process in all respects, but one — the appointment process. Long before they enter the marble palace, judicial nominees must run a political gauntlet that the Constitution itself has erected. The president has the duty to appoint officials — he “shall nominate . . . judges of the Supreme Court.” But the executive has this power only “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” Critically, the Senate is under no obligation to give the authority to the president.
This disjunction — the president shall nominate, but the Senate does not have to confirm — activates the very sort of structural bulwarks that the Framers hardwired into the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s unanimous 2014 decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning reaffirmed this foundational lesson: When there is inter-branch disagreement that cannot be resolved through the political process, no nominee can be confirmed. Justice Scalia’s prescient concurring opinion in that case reminds us that senatorial refusal to confirm is not an unforeseen flaw but an intentionally designed feature of the Constitution. This is true even where it frustrates the orderly functioning of the federal government.
The case began in 2011 when Senate Republicans blocked a vote on President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. Without new appointees, the NLRB would lose its quorum and its ability to issue decisions. Faced with a political problem that called for a political solution, the president turned to an unconstitutional shortcut: Although the Senate had not gone on recess, Obama acted as if it had. During a 72-hour window between pro forma sessions on January 3 and January 6, 2012, the president deemed the Senate in recess and made three appointments to the NLRB.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the president’s legal defense of his action and found that the recess appointments were unconstitutional. But all nine justices went even further than that, specifically refuting the president’s argument that gridlock justified his breach of the separation of powers. During oral arguments, Solicitor General Donald H. Verrilli, the administration’s top lawyer, argued that the president’s decision to disregard the pro forma sessions was justified as a “safety valve” in response to “congressional intransigence.” If the president did not make the recess appointees, “the NLRB was going to go dark,” Verrilli said. “It was going to lose its quorum.”
‘Senatorial intransigence is not a bug’ but ‘a calculated feature of the constitutional framework.’ — Justice Antonin Scalia
All nine justices forcefully rejected the assertion that the Senate has any duty to confirm a nominee, even if the Senate’s refusal inhibits the efficient operation of the government. Justice Scalia cogently made the point in a separate, concurring opinion. Writing with an air of clairvoyance — that we will probably recognize for years to come — he explained that “convenience and efficiency” are not the “primary objectives” of our system of government. Rather, the sort of “Senatorial intransigence” that gave rise to this case “is not a bug” but “a calculated feature of the constitutional framework.” As legal scholar Adam J. White noted in a 2004 article, the Founding-era debates over the confirmation process do “not support an assertion that the constitutional provision for advice and consent contains an implicit obligation to act on the President’s nominations.” The Senate has the constitutional prerogative to vote down a candidate, or to not vote at all.
The decision of the Senate to confirm a nominee, or not confirm him at all, is an awesome political power the Framers vested exclusively in the Senate.
This sentiment was not limited to the conservative Justices. Justice Breyer told Verrilli, “I can’t find anything that says the purpose of [the recess-appointments clause] has anything at all to do with political fights between Congress and the president.” Breyer, a long-time counselor to Senator Ted Kennedy, explained that the Senate’s refusal to confirm the president’s nominees was a “political problem, not a constitutional problem.” Justice Kagan added that the NLRB’s going “dark” was directly “a result of congressional refusal.” Kagan, too, felt the brunt force of senatorial refusal. In 1999, President Clinton nominated her to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but because Senate Republicans scheduled no hearing, her nomination lapsed.
There is an important lesson to learn from Noel Canning. The decision of the Senate to confirm a nominee, or not confirm him at all, is an awesome political power the Framers vested exclusively in the Senate. And with that political power comes political accountability. If the American people disagree with the decision not to exercise this power, they can vote accordingly. But we should not pretend that the Senate has some sort of constitutional duty to confirm a nominee, or even schedule a vote.This dichotomy — where the president has to act, but the Congress does not — exists throughout the Constitution. The president has a duty to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” In contrast, “Congress shall have Power” to make a number of laws, but need not do so. Far more pressing than a vacant seat on the Supreme Court is a Congress that declines to enact the president’s favored laws. As we saw in 2013 when Congress and the president could not reach a compromise over the budget, there was a shutdown of non-essential activities of the federal government. At its core, this was a political problem and not a constitutional problem. Congress has no duty to vote for the president’s preferred budget, no more than Congress needs to confirm a president’s nominees. The shutdown, like a decision to block a judicial nominee, and like all political decisions, will be assessed by the electorate.
Once the Senate provides its “advice and consent” regarding the president’s nominee, that person will serve during “good behaviour” — what effectively amounts to life tenure — with a salary that cannot be diminished. Short of impeachment, after the Senate gives a candidate the nod, it has no role whatsoever in how the justices exercise the “judicial power.” But until that happens, as the framers designed, the ball rests entirely in the hands of the United States Senate.
— Josh Blackman is a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. He is supporting Senator Ted Cruz for President.