WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court hinted Monday that it may move to limit a presidential power used since the days of George Washington to fill high-level vacancies during Senate recesses.
An Obama administration attorney ran into sharp skepticism from justices while defending the presidential power, granted in the Constitution, to bypass the Senate and make recess appointments when lawmakers are not in session.
In recent times, most presidents have relied on recess appointments to break partisan deadlocks and install their nominees temporarily. But Monday's oral arguments were the first time the law has been debated at the Supreme Court.
The case calls on the court to decide whether the Constitution allows the president to circumvent the Senate when it refuses to confirm his nominees, and what exactly constitutes a recess.
Last year, a U.S. appeals court in Washington said President Barack Obama violated the Constitution when he used the recess-appointment power to fill three seats on the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012. The Senate was not meeting then, but it was holding brief "pro-forma sessions" to indicate it was not on a true recess.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said this decision, unless reversed, "strips the president of an authority" that has been used for more than 200 years.
But nearly all the justices questioned whether the president can simply bypass the Senate by saying that a brief break amounts to a recess. Justice Elena Kagan described the recess-appointment power as "a historical relic."