A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the most contentious provision of the health-care overhaul law, ruling that Congress can require Americans to carry insurance coverage.

In backing the individual mandate, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati became the first appellate court to rule on President Obama’s signature domestic initiative. The decision also marked the first time a Republican-appointed judge has sided with the administration in evaluating the law’s constitutionality.

The 2 to 1 ruling was hailed by the Justice Department and administration allies, who called it an important bipartisan test of the law’s ability to withstand numerous legal challenges. Opponents of the health-care act disputed the ruling’s significance, calling it one incremental step in a legal struggle widely expected to wind up at the Supreme Court.

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