The Supreme Court rejected a request Monday by Virginia officials to hear the constitutionality of the federal health-care overhaul, ensuring that the legal battle over the Obama-sponsored law will play out first in lower courts.

The high court's resolution of the law that continues to divide congressional Republicans and Democrats would now likely come in mid-2012, rather than the middle of this year.

The high court's order in Virginia v. Sebelius was issued with no recorded vote or public dissent. It would have been highly unusual for the justices to take up the dispute without at least one lower appeals court ruling first. In the few instances when the justices have intervened early, it has been on a matter of imperative public importance and urgency, such as in the 1974 case involving President Nixon's Watergate tapes.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had urged the justices to step in to resolve conflicting trial court opinions on the constitutionality of the provision that requires, beginning in 2014, that people buy insurance coverage or face a tax penalty

Lower U.S. district courts have split on whether Congress had the authority to pass the individual-insurance mandate included in the legislation that became law in March 2010. Appeals of those rulings are pending in several U.S. circuit courts of appeals, which is the second step of the three-tier federal judiciary.

The trial judges who ruled against the insurance mandate have said Congress went beyond its power to regulate interstate commerce in the provision. Judges who have upheld the law say the insurance requirement does indeed flow from congressional power to regulate commerce in the states because a decision not to buy health insurance raises costs for everyone an affects commerce.

In Virginia's petition to the court for early review of the matter, Cuccinelli said, "Given the importance of the issues at stake to the states and to the economy as a whole, this court should (accept the case) to resolve a matter of imperative public importance."

Virginia had won in the lower trial court, as U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, had declared the individual mandate unconstitutional. Hudson said opting not to purchase health insurance was not an "economic" activity to be regulated by Congress.

As an example of the conflicting views of lower courts on the matter, another Virginia-based judge, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, upheld the provision in a separate case, Liberty University v. Geithner. Moon said Congress has broad power to regulate local matters that affect the economy, "even where the regulated individuals claim not to participate in interstate commerce."

All nine justices apparently participated in the Monday's case.