The U.S. Supreme Court performed with no small amount of agility last week in knitting together its ruling on the power of the president to make recess appointments. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Stephen Breyer skillfully made room for past practice and ambiguous language in the Constitution, the president with the authority to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate.

What is a recess? The court rejected recess appointments made by President Obama two years ago to the National Labor Relations Board, when the Senate was convening every three days in short pro-forma sessions. The court held that the breaks between sessions were too short. It even applied a specific number of days, 10 or more, as a marker for when a president can move forward with recess appointments.

In that way, the court crafted an intelligent compromise. It shaped ground rules for managing the separate powers of the president and the Senate, the former making executive appointments, the latter with the job of advise and consent. The pro-forma sessions allowed the Senate to carry the appearance of remaining at work. Thus, minority Republicans maintained the leverage from their procedural maneuvers aimed at delaying the confirmation of White House nominees.

How did the minority gain such an advantage? To adjourn for more than three days requires the approval of both houses of Congress. The House Republican majority refused to give its assent, the Senate then going to pro-forma sessions.

Know that Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, was the first to use this tactic in 2007. Then, Republicans made more aggressive use of the tool as a means to prevent recess appointments. In response to such obstacles, Democrats now have altered the rules for the confirmation process, the majority with a freer hand.

Recess appointments long have been used by presidents, Democrats and Republicans, in the political tug-of-war. Ronald Reagan made 72 intrasession recess appointments, Bill Clinton, 53, George W. Bush, 141, and President Obama, 26 in his first term. What the Supreme Court recognized is the practical value. At some point, legislative delay begins to impinge on the operation of the executive. Senators get to make their point, yet the government gets to move ahead.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing in dissent, argued for a more literal meaning, as did the court of appeals. He would limit recess appointments to the formal breaks in congressional sessions and to the vacancies that occur during those breaks. That would invalidate thousands of appointments going back to the founding. Better the measured view of the court majority, placing restraints on the White House yet recognizing the practical benefit in governing the country.