CINCINNATI (AP) -- In the first ruling by a federal appeals court on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, a panel in Cincinnati handed the administration a victory Wednesday by agreeing that the government can require a minimum amount of insurance for Americans.
A Republican-appointed judge joined with a Democratic appointee for the 2-1 majority in another milestone for Obama's hotly debated signature domestic initiative - the first time a Republican federal court appointee has affirmed the merits of the law.
The White House and Justice Department hailed the panel's affirmation of an earlier ruling by a federal court in Michigan; opponents of the law said challenges will continue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is a conservative law center's lawsuit arguing on behalf of plaintiffs that potentially requiring them to buy insurance or face penalties could subject them to financial hardship. The suit warns that the law is too broad and could lead to more federal mandates.
The Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., argued before the panel that the law was unconstitutional and that Congress overstepped its powers.
The government countered that the measure was needed for the overall goal of reducing health care costs and reforms such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions. It said the coverage mandate will help keep the costs of changes from being shifted to households and providers.
White House adviser Stephanie Cutter called the ruling "another victory" for millions of Americans and small businesses benefiting from the overhaul.
"At the end of the day, we are confident the constitutionality of these landmark reforms will be upheld," she said in a statement.
The law center predicted its case would have a good shot on appeal.
"Clearly our case won't resolve all the issues, because we don't raise the state rights issue, but we are the only one that is currently ripe for Supreme Court review that raises the challenge on behalf of an individual," said David Yerushalmi, an attorney for the law center.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel delivered a lengthy opinion with disagreement on some issues, moving unusually quickly in delivering its decision less than a month after hearing oral arguments.
"Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the minimum coverage provision is essential to the Affordable Care Act's larger reforms to the national markets in health care delivery and health insurance," Judge Boyce F. Martin, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, wrote for the majority.
A George W. Bush appointee concurred; a Ronald Reagan appointee who is a U.S. district judge in Columbus sitting on the panel disagreed. Judges are selected for panels through random draw.
"If the exercise of power is allowed and the mandate upheld, it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress' Commerce Clause authority would be," warned dissenting Judge James Graham of Columbus. "What aspect of human activity would escape federal power?"
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, the Bush appointee, delivered the decisive vote, although his opinion raised questions and noted the unusual nature of a law directed at someone who chooses inaction, referring to those "who prize that most American of freedoms: to be left alone."
But the government argued that telling someone to buy health insurance, something that virtually everyone needs and is part of a sweeping effort, isn't the same as ordering them to buy a car or a vegetable.
"The novelty of the individual mandate may indeed suggest it is a bridge too far, but it also may offer one more example of a policy necessity giving birth to an inventive (and constitutional) congressional solution," Sutton wrote.
The opinion by Sutton, a well-respected conservative jurist, will be studied closely by other courts, said a law professor at Virginia's University of Richmond.
"His opinion is comprehensive and cautious and careful, but I think it comes out to pretty much the same conclusion as Judge Martin's," Carl Tobias said in a telephone interview.
An attorney for Thomas More said the center expects to appeal. It could ask for the full circuit court to review the case or go on to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 16-seat 6th Circuit has one vacancy.
Among those supporting the center in court documents in the case - titled Thomas More Law Center, et al, vs. Barack Hussein Obama, et al - were Republican presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul and several other members of Congress including Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio.
More than 30 legal challenges have been filed over the health care overhaul, some focusing on different issues such as states' rights. Earlier decisions at the U.S. district court level have found Republican-appointed judges opposing and Democrat-appointed judges affirming.
Associated Press writers Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.