Obama has made relatively few recess appointments — 32 in his five-plus years in office, according to the Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush made 171 such appointments over two terms and President Bill Clinton filled 139 posts that way in his eight years in office.
But Obama was the first president to try to make recess appointments when Congress explicitly said it was not in recess. The Constitution requires that the Senate and House must get the other's consent for any break lasting longer than three days. At the end of 2011, the Republican-controlled House would not give the Democratic-led Senate permission for a longer break.
The partisan roles were reversed during Bush's presidency, when Senate Democrats sought ways to prevent the president from making recess appointments.
In fact, the very basis on which the justices decided the case — that the Senate can use extremely brief sessions to avoid a formal recess — was a tactic devised by Reid to frustrate Bush.
On a practical level, there may be little difference between how the court decided the case and the way Scalia wishes it had been decided, said Andy Pincus, a veteran Supreme Court lawyer in Washington.
"The recess appointment power has receded into practical irrelevance," Pincus said, pointing to the now-common Senate practice of blocking recess appointments by convening for pro forma sessions. "Today's decision likely cements that reality."
A recess appointment can last no more than two years. Recess appointees who subsequently won Senate confirmation include Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, two current NLRB members and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray.
The case challenging the appointments was brought by Noel Canning, a soft drink bottling company in Yakima, Washington. The company claimed an NLRB decision against it was not valid because the board members were not properly appointed and that the board therefore did not have enough members to do business.
Noel Canning prevailed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and two other appeals courts also had ruled against recess appointments.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman and Jessica Gresko and AP White House correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.