(CBS) Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has become the face of opposition to the new national health care reform law, and Thursday was the first stage of a battle that will likely not be resolved until it reaches the Supreme Court, many legal experts say.
Thursday was also the same day a Virginia law went into effect exempting state residents from having to buy health insurance. Mandatory coverage is a key part of the federal law and the focus of Virginia's lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson heard more than two hours of arguments on both sides: Duncan Getchell, Cuccinelli's Solicitor General, argued that it is unfair to force citizens to buy a private product - in this case, health insurance.
Ian Gershengorn, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, argued that uninsured Americans are shifting $43 billion a year in health care costs to others. Health insurance is unlike any other product because everyone is going to need medical care at some point, he said.
The federal judge said that he'll rule within one month one whether or not to dismiss Virginia's lawsuit.
"it is not essentially about health care, it's about liberty," Cuccinelli said in a press conference. "If the government prevails in this suit and Congress can force Americans to buy health insurance in the name of regulating commerce, then congress will have been granted a virtually unlimited power to order you to buy anything."
It's a divisive issue, to say the least.
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran called Cuccinelli's legal interpretation "nuts," according to the Washington Post. "He's a radical in terms of his interpretation of the constitution. There's just so much precedent for doing the kinds of things that are entailed in health care reform," Moran said.
Yet some legal scholars think Cuccinelli has a point. Most notably Cuccinelli supporter Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School, who told the Post that "for states' rights advocates, this moment feels like the final stand at the Alamo."
A separate lawsuit in Florida has been filed challenging the federal law, but Virginia's is the first to go before a judge. The main point of the hearing was to determine whether the state has standing to sue.
Before the hearing, outside the Virginia courthouse, advocates for the poor, small business owners and health care providers voiced their opposition to the state's challenge to health reform.
"It seems to me that our attorney general and our current administration are putting politics first and are not taking care of the citizens of the commonwealth of Virginia," said Jeanne Boisineau, owner of a small casting business in Richmond.
The Rev. Rayfield Vines Jr., president of the local NAACP, questioned why Cuccinelli would oppose providing health care to everyone. "We can't be a great nation if we don't do great things," Vines said.