A federal judge in Florida handed opponents of the new healthcare law an early procedural victory Thursday, rejecting a bid by the Obama administration to throw out the leading lawsuit challenging the sweeping overhaul.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson did not decide whether the new law violates the Constitution by requiring Americans to get health insurance, a central contention of the lawsuit being pursued by 20 states.
But Vinson, an appointee of President Reagan, concluded that the issues were sufficiently unclear that further litigation was proper, echoing a decision made by another federal judge in Virginia who is considering a separate challenge to the law.
Vinson appeared to signal some sympathy for the critique that the landmark healthcare legislation overextended federal power.
"To say that something is 'novel' or 'unprecedented' does not necessarily mean that it is 'unconstitutional' or 'improper.' There may be a first time thing for anything," Vinson wrote in his 65-page ruling.
But, he concluded, "the plaintiffs have at least stated a plausible claim that the line has been crossed."
That sets the case on course toward trial. Many legal experts believe that the constitutionality of the new insurance mandate will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.
The Florida lawsuit, led by that state's attorney general, Republican Bill McCollum, is the most broad-based challenge to the new law.
Nineteen states have joined the suit: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington.
Except for Louisiana, the states are represented by Republican attorneys general or governors.
The National Federation of Independent Business, a leading conservative small-business group, also joined the suit.
"This ruling is a victory for the states, small businesses and the American people," McCollum said in a statement Thursday. "It is the first step to having the individual mandate declared unconstitutional and upholding state sovereignty in our federal system."
Vinson dismissed four less fundamental complaints made by the states, including all but one in which the states argued that the healthcare law infringes on their sovereignty.
He concluded that more litigation may be needed to settle the states' claim that the healthcare overhaul unlawfully forces them to expand their Medicaid insurance programs for the poor.
The ruling in the Florida case comes two months after a similar decision by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who is considering a second challenge to the law by Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli.
The White House fared better in a Michigan courtroom last week, when U.S. District Judge George C. Steeh dismissed a third challenge to the lawsuit, ruling that the law's insurance mandate is constitutional.
David G. Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.