By Noam N. Levey
November 8, 2011, 10:05 a.m.

Giving a surprise boost to the new healthcare law, one of the nation’s most closely watched federal courts ruled Tuesday that law’s requirement that most Americans get health insurance is constitutional.

The split opinion by the conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia marks the second time this year that a federal appellate court controlled by Republican appointees has backed the law and its insurance mandate

And though the ruling has little practical impact, it comes just as the U.S. Supreme Court begins considering the constitutionality of the landmark legislation that President Obama signed last year.

With the opinion, three federal appellate courts – in Washington, in Richmond, Va., and in Cincinnati, have now rejected substantive challenges to the healthcare law. Only the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta backed such a challenge.

The case decided Tuesday was a challenge to the law’s insurance requirement by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson.

The suit was dismissed by a federal judge earlier this year. But many believed the three-judge panel of the D.C. circuit, which included two Republican appointees, would reverse the lower court and uphold the challenge to the law.

One of the GOP appointees–Judge Laurence H. Silberman–was appointed to the bench by President Reagan and is considered a conservative intellectual leader on the court. He won plaudits from gun rights groups recently for writing an opinion that the District of Columbia’s handgun ban was unconstitutional.

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