The Supreme Court dropped a huge bomb on the Obama administration, unanimously rebuking the President for arrogating to himself the determination of when Congress is in session for the purpose of making recess appointments. According to reports on the opinion, the court may have taken a middle path on what a recess actually is, toning down one appellate court ruling that only allowed for recess appointments between formal sessions:

The US Supreme Court today limited a president’s power to make recess appointments when the White House and the Senate are controlled by opposite parties, scaling back a presidential authority as old as the republic.

The case arose from a political dispute between President Obama and Senate Republicans, who claimed he had no authority to put three people on the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012 when the Senate was out of town.

He used a president’s power, granted by the Constitution, to “fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate.” But the Republicans said the Senate was not in recess at the time the appointments were made, because every three days a senator went into the chamber, gaveled it to order, and then immediately called a recess.

By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court agreed that the Senate was not in recess, holding that it’s up to both houses of Congress to define when they’re in session or in recess. As a result of the decision, the Senate can frustrate a president’s ability to make recess appointments simply by holding periodic pro forma sessions, a tactic used in recent years by both political parties.

According to NBC’s Pete Williams, the opinion provides a timeframe for Congress and the White House to follow in the future:

That will certainly make it easier to play keep-away from the President. A minority on the court wanted to limit the recess power to strictly the period between sessions, as did one appellate court, but in the end a 5-4 majority decided to allow for a looser interpretation of “recess.” Certainly, if Congress wants to stop recess appointments from being made, it will be fairly easy to gavel into session every nine days.

The question will now be what happens to the NLRB rulings during the period when recess appointments provided a quorum. The answer appears to be that they can be successfully challenged and set aside. That was the context of the challenge to the recess appointments in the first place — lawsuits against regulation created in that period that alleged they were illegitimate. This ruling means that the Supreme Court unanimously agrees on that point, a severe rebuke to the “constitutional scholar” President and his abuse of power. More practically, though, the recent appointments to the NLRB can reconstitute that regulation if they wish, so the victory may be short lived for the plaintiffs.

Update: The decision in NLRB v Noel Canning et al can be found here.

Supreme Court decision