WASHINGTON - The Justice Department said Tuesday that it would appeal a federal judge's ruling declaring part of President Obama's health-care overhaul unconstitutional, but it rejected suggestions to take the appeal straight to the Supreme Court.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who brought the suit decided Monday by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson in Richmond, urged the administration to ask the high court to directly accept an appeal, as did Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. Both elected officials are Republicans.
McDonnell said Tuesday that bypassing the normal appeals process would provide certainty more quickly for states and businesses. But such a course would be highly unusual, and the Justice Department rejected it.
"The department believes this case should follow the ordinary course of allowing the courts of appeals to hear it first so the issues and arguments can be fully developed before the Supreme Court decides whether to consider it," spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said by e-mail.
She said the department would appeal the ruling to an appeals court in Richmond.
Hudson ruled that a central provision of the law - the requirement for nearly everyone to carry health insurance - was unconstitutional.
The ruling is the government's first loss out of three rulings so far in federal courts that have considered challenges to the law.
A federal court in Florida on Thursday will begin hearing oral arguments in a similar constitutional challenge to the law by 20 state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, now governor-elect.
Constitutional scholars said that unless Congress changed the law, its ultimate fate probably would be determined by the Supreme Court.
In his 42-page opinion, Hudson said the "unchecked expansion" of congressional power represented by the insurance requirement "would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers."
No Supreme Court decision has authorized Congress to "compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market," he wrote.
The judge left the rest of the law intact.
Justice Department lawyers in court papers called the mandate to buy insurance the cornerstone of the overhaul, because it would push younger, healthier people, who often don't buy insurance, into the insurance pool.
The law bars insurers from denying coverage to people who are sick or from imposing lifetime limits on costs, and without the money generated by requiring even healthy people to buy insurance, the health-insurance market would face extinction, the government argued.
U.S. lawyers argued that the mandate fell under Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce as the market is forced to absorb $43 billion in unpaid medical bills each year.
Through the mandate and expansions of Medicaid and employer-based coverage, the law will provide 32 million more people with coverage by 2019, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The mandate is set to take effect in 2014.
The ruling by the Republican-appointed judge was a setback for the administration, but not a surprise. Two other federal judges, both Democratic appointees, have found the law constitutional.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted Tuesday the negative ruling would have "no practical impact at all as states move forward in implementing" the law.
Officials from all but a handful of states are expected to meet later this week with the Health and Human Services Department to discuss setting up state-based insurance marketplaces, called exchanges, required by the law.
These include officials from many of the 20 states that are simultaneously suing to overturn the law.