WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul hit its first major legal roadblock yesterday, thrown into doubt by a federal judge's declaration that the heart of the sweeping legislation is unconstitutional.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, a Republican appointee in Richmond, Va., marked the first successful court challenge to any portion of the new law, following two earlier rulings in its favor by Democratic-appointed federal judges.
The law's central requirement for nearly all Americans to carry insurance is unconstitutional, well beyond Congress' power to require, Hudson ruled. He agreed with the argument of Virginia's attorney general - and many of the Republican lawmakers who will take control of the U.S. House in January.
But Hudson denied Virginia's request to strike down the law in its entirety or block it from being implemented while his ruling is appealed by the Obama administration.
"An individual's personal decision to purchase - or decline to purchase - health insurance from a private provider is beyond the historical reach of the Commerce Clause," said Hudson, a 2002 appointee of President George W. Bush.
The White House predicted it would prevail in the Supreme Court, although it may be a year or two before the law gets there. The next step for the Virginia lawsuit is the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where Democratic-appointed judges hold a majority.
But in the short term, the ruling hands potent ammunition to GOP opponents as they prepare to assert control in the new Congress with promises to repeal the law.
Obama in turn has promised to veto any repeal legislation and appears likely to be able to prevail since Democrats retain control of the Senate. Republicans also have discussed trying to starve the law of funding.
Whatever the eventual outcome, yesterday's ruling could create uncertainty around the administration's efforts to gradually put into effect the landmark legislation extending health coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans.
Obama aides said implementation would not be affected, noting that the individual insurance requirement and other major portions of the legislation don't take effect until 2014.
Underscoring the potential for Hudson's ruling to become a political cudgel for the new Republican House majority, incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) quickly cautioned states against "investing time and resources in Obamacare's implementation now that its central mandate has been ruled unconstitutional."