The federal health care overhaul survived two lawsuits dismissed Thursday on technicalities, leaving President Barack Obama's signature initiative headed toward a final resolution in the U.S. Supreme Court as early as next year.
It's possible the high court could rule on the issue by June 2012, in the midst of Obama's re-election bid.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ignored the core issue of whether the law can require that individuals buy health insurance or pay a penalty starting in 2014. In the lawsuit filed by Liberty University, the court ruled that the penalty amounted to a tax _ and that a tax can't be challenged before it's collected. The panel said the state of Virginia lacked legal standing to file its lawsuit.
Three federal appeals courts have now weighed in on lawsuits filed over the law, and both opponents and advocates say the overhaul will ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court. A decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upholding the law already has been appealed. The Justice Department has yet to appeal the Aug. 13 decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which struck down the insurance mandate, and was given 60 days to appeal or ask for more time.
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, a Republican, and Liberty University attorney Mathew Staver said they plan to appeal Thursday's rulings to the Supreme Court.
The only questions are which case or cases the court will look at, and when that might occur, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
"The court will entertain at least one if not all of them," Tobias said.
He said the court could take up the issue by January, which would allow enough time for a decision by June.
The Obama administration acknowledged after Thursday's rulings that more legal hurdles await in the coming weeks.
"When it ends, we are confident we will prevail," White House adviser Stephanie Cutter wrote in a blog message.
Two of the judges on the Virginia panel were appointed by Obama, the other by Bill Clinton.
They ruled 3-0 that Cuccinelli did not have legal standing to file his lawsuit, which had argued the federal law conflicts with a state law that says no Virginian can be forced to buy insurance.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, the Clinton appointee, wrote that the only apparent function of the state law was "to declare Virginia's opposition to a federal insurance mandate." The state law was signed by the governor a day after Obama signed the federal health care law.
Cuccinelli said he was disappointed not only that the court ruled against Virginia, "but also that the court did not even reach the merits on the key question of Virginia's lawsuit _ whether Congress has a power never before recognized in American history: the power to force one citizen to purchase a good or service from another citizen."
In the Liberty case, the court ruled 2-1 that the appeals court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the case because federal law prohibits challenging a tax before it is collected.
Judge Andre Davis disagreed. Furthermore, Davis wrote that if the court had ruled on the merits of the case, he would hold that the law's health insurance provision is constitutional.
Staver noted that the lawsuit filed by Liberty, a Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, is just one of more than 30 that have been filed across the country challenging the health care overhaul.
"That in and of itself says something that this is unprecedented, it's unwanted and it's unconstitutional in my view," Staver said.
Associated Press Writer Michael Felberbaum contributed to this report.