Haraz N. Ghanbari, Associated Press
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Richard Cordray before speaking about the economy, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is defending the legality of President Barack Obama's recent recess appointment of a national consumer watchdog and other officials from criticism by Republicans.

The department released a 23-page legal opinion Thursday summarizing the advice it gave the White House before the Jan. 4 appointments. Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz wrote that the president has authority to make such appointments during a congressional recess of the current length. Seitz argued the Senate's periodic pro forma sessions in which no business is conducted have not enabled the chamber to advise and consent to regular nominations, as it is empowered to do under the Constitution.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said Obama has endangered the nation's systems of checks and balances, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch says the appointments are a very grave decision by an autocratic White House.

On Jan. 4, Obama appointed Richard Cordray, a former attorney general of Ohio, to be the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama also appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board that day. There was stiff Republican opposition to creating the new consumer agency, which was authorized in the financial regulation law, and Republicans have argued that the labor board has tilted toward unions under Obama's Democratic administration.

Seitz heads the department's Office of Legal Counsel, which is empowered to provide binding legal opinions to the executive branch.

Her new memo cites a Justice Department legal opinion from President George W. Bush's administration in justifying Obama's recent appointments. Bush did not make appointments during pro forma sessions, but the Bush administration opinion from 2004 says that a recess during a session of the Senate can meet constitutional requirements for permitting the president to make recess appointments as long as the recess is of sufficient length. The current recess is for 20 days. Seitz noted that the last five presidents have made recess appointments during recesses of 14 days or less.

In December, the Senate agreed to adjourn until Jan. 23 but to convene pro forma sessions in which no business was to be conducted every Tuesday and Friday. He made the disputed appointments on Jan. 4.

The Senate pro forma sessions in which no business was conducted, do not "in our opinion" interrupt the recess "in a manner that would preclude the president" from acting, Seitz wrote in her Jan. 6 opinion.

Beginning in late 2007, the Senate has frequently conducted pro forma sessions that typically last only a few seconds and that "apparently require the presence of only one senator," Seitz wrote. Under a legal framework dating back nearly a century, recess appointments have been permitted when the Senate cannot receive communications from the president or participate as a body in confirming nominees.

In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, Edwin Meese, who served as attorney general under Republican President Ronald Reagan, and Todd Gaziano, a former Office of Legal Counsel attorney who is now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called Obama's actions "a breathtaking violation of the separation of powers."