WASHINGTON The Obama administration on Tuesday appealed a ruling by a federal judge in Virginia that declared unconstitutional a key part of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law.
U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson last month backed the argument by Virginia's attorney general that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring Americans to start buying health insurance in 2014 or face a fine.
The Justice Department, as expected, filed a notice with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that it was appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond.
The appeal comes days before Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives plan to pass legislation that would repeal the healthcare reform law. However, the measure has no chance of passing the Senate and Obama would veto it.
Judge Hudson ruled on December 13 that the individual mandate invited an "unbridled exercise of federal police powers."
However, Obama administration officials have vigorously defended the individual coverage mandate as passing constitutional muster. A multi-state lawsuit against the mandate is also pending in Florida. [nN18139940]
It is considered a key piece of the plan to try to keep health insurance premiums low, because it ensures that healthy as well as sick people will buy insurance.
"There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing the Affordable Care Act and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail," said Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
Virginia's lawyers argued that the federal government could not regulate someone for not buying a good or service under the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause and could not penalize them for failing to buy health insurance.
The state's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, filed his own appeal on Tuesday as well, saying the judge erred by not throwing out the entire law after invalidating the individual mandate provision.
Hudson did decline to strike down the entire healthcare law and refused Virginia's request for an injunction to block its implementation. Administration officials have said they will keep implementing the rest of the law while it works through the legal questions of the individual mandate.
Legal experts believe the case will ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, however that could take months or possibly a year or more.
Virginia officials have said they would like to expedite the appeal. However the administration opposes fast-tracking the case and said the issues and arguments should be fully developed before the high court considers the case.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington; Editing by Sandra Maler, Bill Trott and Eric Walsh)