A federal appeals court Friday struck down a central provision of the 2010 health care law, ruling that Congress overstepped its authority by requiring virtually all Americans to obtain health insurance.
The divided three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta is the first appellate court to rule against any portion of the statute.
The decision marks a significant victory for the 26 Republican attorneys general and governors who challenged the health care law on behalf of their states.
In a separate case in June, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati upheld the health care law.
A third challenge is pending in the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., with a decision expected soon.
The Supreme Court almost certainly will decide the constitutionality of the act.
Friday's decision seemed to ensure Supreme Court review, because the most important factor in whether the high court accepts a case is whether lower courts are split on a constitutional question. But when the Supreme Court could hear the case was not clear.
Opponents of the health care law, which has become a political lightning rod since its passage in March 2010, are pushing for swift Supreme Court review.
The administration said Friday it is considering its legal options. One of those would be to appeal Friday's decision to the full 11th Circuit Court. That could delay any Supreme Court ruling until after the 2012 election.
Administration officials downplayed the importance of Friday's decision, noting that other judges have supported the law.
"Today's ruling is one of many decisions on the health care law that we will see in the weeks and months ahead," said Stephanie Cutter, a senior White House official. "In the end, we are confident the act will ultimately be upheld."
In its 2-1 ruling, the 11th Circuit Court panel teed up many of the arguments likely to dominate a Supreme Court review.
The two judges in the majority called the law's insurance requirement a "wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority."
They rejected the government's contention that unique features of the health care and health insurance markets justified the mandate under Congress' constitutional right to regulate commerce.
"We are unable to conceive of any product whose purchase Congress could not mandate under this line of argument," Chief Judge Joel Dubina and Circuit Judge Frank Hull wrote.
But they, too, stopped short of upholding the full sweep of the lower-court ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida that was before them.
Vinson had ruled that the insurance mandate could not be separated from the rest of the statute and that the entire law should be invalidated.
Dubina and Hull, however, held that all other provisions in the law can remain in effect.
The third member of the 11th Circuit Court panel, Judge Stanley Marcus, accused his colleagues of ignoring years of Supreme Court precedent. "I can find nothing in logic or law that so circumscribes Congress' commerce power and yields so anomalous a result," he wrote.
Generally, the Supreme Court must accept a case by January to hear arguments and make a decision before adjourning at the end of June.
The challengers of the law who lost at the 6th Circuit already have a petition before the court asking for review, and the case decided Friday also could make its way through the process to be heard in the court's term that starts in October. That would provide a chance to settle the law's constitutionality before the 2012 election.
"I think this fast-tracks it," said Michael Dorf, a Cornell University law professor who writes frequently about the court.
But other legal analysts thought the administration would want to ask the full 11th Circuit to review the three-judge panel's decision, which could take months.
Bradley Joondeph, a law professor at Santa Clara University who has closely followed litigation over the act, said the decision is "a bit of a double-edged sword for the White House."