The state of Virginia can continue its lawsuit to stop the nation's new health care law from taking effect, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson said he is allowing the suit against the U.S. government to proceed, saying no court has ever ruled on whether it's constitutional to require Americans to purchase a product.
"While this case raises a host of complex constitutional issues, all seem to distill to the single question of whether or not Congress has the power to regulate -- and tax -- a citizen's decision not to participate in interstate commerce," Hudson wrote in a 32-page decision.
"Given the presence of some authority arguably supporting the theory underlying each side's position, this court cannot conclude at this stage that the complaint fails to state a cause of action," he wrote.
The decision is a small step, but in no way a minor matter to opponents of the health care bill rejected by all congressional Republicans but signed into law by President Obama earlier this year.
"This lawsuit is not about health care, it's about our freedom and about standing up and calling on the federal government to follow the ultimate law of the land -- the Constitution," said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who brought the suit. "The government cannot draft an unwilling citizen into commerce just so it can regulate him under the Commerce Clause."
"Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has brought forward a specific and narrowly tailored objection to the Act. It warrants a full and thorough hearing in our courts. It is meritorious and constitutionally correct. ... I look forward to the full hearing this fall," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Cuccinelli filed the suit almost immediately after the law was signed, arguing that it conflicts with Virginia's legislation -- also passed this year -- exempting state residents from the requirement that all Americans be forced into health care coverage. Cuccinelli argued that the law violates the Constitution's Commerce Clause.
The Commerce Clause allows the U.S. government to regulate economic activity. But Virginia argued that it's not economic activity when someone chooses to refrain from participating in commerce.
The U.S. government, which was defending itself through the Health and Human Services Department run by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius argued that everyone will need medical services at some point in their life and therefore is either a "current or future participation in the health care market," and therefore subject to taxation.
"We do not leave people to die at the emergency room door -- whether they have insurance or not. Those costs -- an estimated $43 billion annually -- are absorbed by everyone else paying into the health care market including doctors, hospitals and insured patients. Congress has the authority under the Commerce Clause to address that cost-shifting burdening the interstate market for health care," argues the brief filed by the Justice Department on behalf of HHS.
"Today's ruling is merely a procedural decision by the court to allow this case to move forward. We believe there is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. We are confident that the health care reform statute is constitutional and that we will ultimately prevail," the department said in a statement.
Supporters of the law say the decision Monday is merely procedural, but the law will be proven constitutional when it gets to a hearing on the content.
"This case is really a politically motivated ploy aimed at diverting attention from the many benefits of the new law," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, which lobbied in favor of the bill. "The decision today should not distract states and the federal government from focusing on implementing the new law in the most effective way possible. The benefits of the new law are just becoming apparent, and substantially more help is on the way."
More than a dozen state attorneys general have filed a lawsuit in Florida challenging the federal law, but Virginia's is the first to reach a courtroom.