ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT Court Below: 564 F.3d 840
The Taft-Hartley Act increased the size of the National Labor Relations Board (Board) from three members to five, see 29 U. S. C. §153(a), and amended §3(b) of the National Labor Relations Act to increase the Board's quorum requirement from two members to three and to allow the Board to delegate its authority to groups of at least three members, see §153(b). In December 2007, the Board-finding itself with only four members and expecting two more vacancies- delegated, inter alia, its powers to a group of three members. On December 31, one group member's appointment expired, but the others proceeded to issue Board decisions for the next 27 months as a two-member quorum of a three-member group. Two of those decisions sustained unfair labor practice complaints against petitioner, which sought review, challenging the two-member Board's authority to issue orders. The Seventh Circuit ruled for the Government, concluding that the two members constituted a valid quorum of a three-member group to which the Board had legitimately delegated its powers.
Held: Section 3(b) requires that a delegee group maintain a membership of three in order to exercise the delegated authority of the Board. Pp. 4--14.
(a) The first sentence of §3(b), the so-called delegation clause, authorizes the Board to delegate its powers only to a "group of three or more members." This clause is best read to require that the delegee group maintain a membership of three in order for the delegation to remain valid. First, that is the only way to harmonize and give meaningful effect to all of §3(b)'s provisions: (1) the delegation clause; (2) the vacancy clause, which provides that "[a] vacancy in the Board shall not impair the right of the remaining members to exercise all of the powers of the Board"; (3) the Board quorum requirement, which mandates that "three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board"; and (4) the group quorum provision, which provides that "two members shall constitute a quorum" of any delegee group. This reading is consonant with the Board quorum requirement of three participating members "at all times," and it gives material effect to the delegation clause's three-member rule. It also permits the vacancy clause to operate to provide that vacancies do not impair the Board's ability to take action, so long as the quorum is satisfied. And it does not render inoperative the group quorum provision, which continues to authorize a properly constituted three-member delegee group to issue a decision with only two members participating when one is disqualified from a case. The Govern-ment's contrary reading allows two members to act as the Board ad infinitum, dramatically undercutting the Board quorum require-ment's significance by allowing its permanent circumvention. It also diminishes the delegation clause's three-member requirement by permitting a de facto two-member delegation. By allowing the Board to include a third member in the group for only one minute before her term expires, this approach also gives no meaningful effect to the command implicit in both the delegation clause and the Board quorum requirement that the Board's full power be vested in no fewer than three members. Second, had Congress intended to authorize two members to act on an ongoing basis, it could have used straightforward language. The Court's interpretation is consistent with the Board's longstanding practice of reconstituting a delegee group when one group member's term expired. Pp. 4--9.
(b) The Government's several arguments against the Court's inter-pretation-that the group quorum requirement and vacancy clause together permit two members of a three-member group to constitute a quorum even when there is no third member; that the vacancy clause establishes that a vacancy in the group has no effect; and that reading the statute to authorize the Board to act with only two members advances the congressional objective of Board efficiency-are unconvincing. Pp. 9--14.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Stevens
The Taft-Hartley Act, enacted in 1947, increased the size of the National Labor Relations Board (Board) from three members to five. See 29 U. S. C. §153(a). Concurrent with that change, the Taft-Hartley Act amended §3(b) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to increase the quorum requirement for the Board from two members to three, and to allow the Board to delegate its authority to groups of at least three members. See §153(b). The question in this case is whether, following a delegation of the Board's powers to a three-member group, two members may continue to exercise that delegated authority once the group's (and the Board's) membership falls to two. We hold that two remaining Board members cannot exercise such authority.
As 2007 came to a close, the Board found itself with four members and one vacancy. It anticipated two more vacancies at the end of the year, when the recess appointments of Members Kirsanow and Walsh were set to expire, which would leave the Board with only two members-too few to meet the Board's quorum requirement, §153(b). The four sitting members decided to take action in an effort to preserve the Board's authority to function. On December 20, 2007, the Board made two delegations of its authority, effective as of midnight December 28, 2007. First, the Board delegated to the general counsel continuing authority to initiate and conduct litigation that would normally require case-by-case approval of the Board. See Minute of Board Action (Dec. 20, 2007), App. to Brief for Petitioner 4a--5a (hereinafter Board Minutes). Second, the Board delegated "to Members Liebman, Schaumber and Kirsanow, as a three-member group, all of the Board's powers, in anticipation of the adjournment of the 1st Session of the 110th Congress." Id., at 5a. The Board expressed the opinion that its action would permit the remaining two members to exercise the powers of the Board "after [the] departure of Members Kirsanow and Walsh, because the remaining Members will constitute a quorum of the three-member group." Ibid.
The Board's minutes explain that it relied on "the statutory language" of §3(b), as well as an opinion issued by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), for the proposition that the Board may use this delegation procedure to "issue decisions during periods when three or more of the five seats on the Board are vacant." Id., at 6a. The OLC had concluded in 2003 that "if the Board delegated all of its powers to a group of three members, that group could continue to issue decisions and orders as long as a quorum of two members remained." Dept. of Justice, OLC, Quorum Requirements, App. to Brief for Respondent 3a. In seeking the OLC's advice, the Board agreed to accept the OLC's answer regarding its ability to operate with only two members, id., at 1a, n. 1, and the Board in its minutes therefore "acknowledged that it is bound" by the OLC opinion. Board Minutes 6a. The Board noted, however, that it was not bound to make this delegation; rather, it had "decided to exercise its discretion" to do so. Ibid.
On December 28, 2007, the Board's delegation to the three-member group of Members Liebman, Schaumber, and Kirsanow became effective. On December 31, 2007, Member Kirsanow's recess appointment expired. Thus, starting on January 1, 2008, Members Liebman and Schaumber became the only members of the Board. They proceeded to issue decisions for the Board as a two-member quorum of a three-member group. The delegation automatically terminated on March 27, 2010, when the President made two recess appointments to the Board, because the terms of the delegation specified that it would be revoked when the Board's membership returned to at least three members, id., at 7a.
During the 27-month period in which the Board had only two members, it decided almost 600 cases. See Letter from Elena Kagan, Solicitor General, to William K. Suter, Clerk of Court (Apr. 26, 2010). One of those cases involved petitioner New Process Steel. In September 2008, the two-member Board issued decisions sustaining two unfair labor practice complaints against petitioner. See New Process Steel, LP, 353 N. L. R. B. No. 25 (2008); New Process Steel, LP, 353 N. L. R. B. No. 13 (2008). Petitioner sought review of both orders in the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and challenged the authority of the two-member Board to issue the orders.
The court ruled in favor of the Government. After a review of the text and legislative history of §3(b) and the sequence of events surrounding the delegation of authority in December 2007, the court concluded that the then-sitting two members constituted a valid quorum of a three-member group to which the Board had legitimately delegated all its powers. 564 F. 3d 840, 845--847 (CA7 2009). On the same day that the Seventh Circuit issued its decision in this case, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia announced a decision coming to the opposite conclusion. Laurel Baye Healthcare of Lake Lanier, Inc. v. NLRB, 564 F. 3d 469 (2009). We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict.*fn1 558 U. S. ___ (2009).
The Board's quorum requirements and delegation procedure are set forth in §3(b) of the NLRA, 49 Stat. 451, as amended by 61 Stat. 139, which provides:
"The Board is authorized to delegate to any group of three or more members any or all of the powers which it may itself exercise. . . . A vacancy in the Board shall not impair the right of the remaining members to exercise all of the powers of the Board, and three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board, except that two members shall constitute a quorum of any group designated pursuant to the first sentence hereof." 29 U. S. C. §153(b).
It is undisputed that the first sentence of this provision authorized the Board to delegate its powers to the three-member group effective on December 28, 2007, and the last sentence authorized two members of that group to act as a quorum of the group during the next three days if, for example, the third member had to recuse himself from a particular matter. The question we face is whether those two members could continue to act for the Board as a quorum of the delegee group after December 31, 2007, when the Board's membership fell to two and the designated three-member group of "Members Liebman, Schaumber, and Kirsanow" ceased to exist due to the expiration of Member Kirsanow's term. Construing §3(b) as a whole and in light of the Board's longstanding practice, we are persuaded that they could not.
The first sentence of §3(b), which we will call the delegation clause, provides that the Board may delegate its powers only to a "group of three or more members." 61 Stat. 139. There are two different ways to interpret that language. One interpretation, put forward by the Government, would read the clause to require only that a delegee group contain three members at the precise time the Board delegates its powers, and to have no continuing relevance after the moment of the initial delegation. Under that reading, two members alone may exercise the full power of the Board so long as they were part of a delegee group that, at the time of its creation, included three members. The other interpretation, by contrast, would read the clause as requiring that the delegee group maintain a membership of three in order for the delegation to remain valid. Three main reasons support the latter reading.
First, and most fundamentally, reading the delegation clause to require that the Board's delegated power be vested continuously in a group of three members is the only way to harmonize and give meaningful effect to all of the provisions in §3(b). See Duncan v. Walker, 533 U. S. 167, 174 (2001) (declining to adopt a "construction of the statute, [that] would render [a term] insignificant"); Market Co. v. Hoffman, 101 U. S. 112, 115--116 (1879) ("[A] statute ought, upon the whole, to be so construed that, if it can be prevented, no clause, sentence, or word shall be . . . insignificant" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Those provisions are: (1) the delegation clause; (2) the vacancy clause, which provides that "[a] vacancy in the Board shall not impair the right of the remaining members to exercise all of the powers of the Board"; (3) the Board quorum requirement, which mandates that "three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board"; and (4) the group quorum provision, which provides that "two members shall constitute a quorum" of any delegee group. See §153(b).
Interpreting the statute to require the Board's powers to be vested at all times in a group of at least three members is consonant with the Board quorum requirement, which requires three participating members "at all times" for the Board to act. The interpretation likewise gives material effect to the three-member requirement in the delegation clause. The vacancy clause still operates to provide that vacancies do not impair the ability of the Board to take action, so long as the quorum is satisfied. And the interpretation does not render inoperative the group quorum provision, which still operates to authorize a three-member delegee group to issue a decision with only two members participating, so ...