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Judge in Va. strikes down federal health care law

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The federal judge who struck down the very centerpiece of the Obama administration's health care law Monday is a George W. Bush appointee who earned the nickname "Hang 'Em High Henry" for his tough-on-crime stand as a prosecutor and on the bench.

Among those who have felt U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson's wrath is NFL star Michael Vick, who in 2007 received a nearly two-year sentence — and a dressing-down — for running a dogfighting ring.

Hudson rejected Vick's plea for leniency, questioned whether the athlete was truly remorseful and chastised him for failing to apologize to children who looked up to him as a role model.

"You were instrumental in promoting, funding and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity," the judge said, adding: "I'm not convinced you've fully accepted responsibility."

The health care ruling could make Hudson, 63, a hero to political conservatives, just as the Vick case did among animal rights activists.

Hudson declared unconstitutional the requirement that nearly all Americans buy insurance.

"At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance — or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage — it's about an individual's right to choose to participate," he said.

Whether health care will replace Vick as Hudson's most memorable case remains to be seen.

"If his decision is ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court, his original opinion may actually stand out for quite a long time," said Paul McNulty, a Washington lawyer who served as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia from 2001 to 2006.

Even before the Vick case and the health care lawsuit landed in his court, Hudson had experienced enough drama to write an autobiography two years ago, "Quest for Justice: From Deputy Sheriff to Federal Judge ... and the Lessons Learned Along the Way."

He served as a deputy sheriff and went to law school at American University at night. Fresh out of law school in 1974, Hudson became a state prosecutor and then a federal one. Long active in Republican politics, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

In 1986, he headed the pornography investigation by the Meese Commission, named for Reagan's attorney general. The commission said sex crimes could be linked to hardcore pornography — a finding disputed by some researchers who said there was no demonstrable link. The panel called for a campaign against the porn industry. Hudson said at the time that he wished the commission had taken an even stronger stand.

In 1992 Hudson was director of the U.S. Marshals Service during the deadly siege by federal law enforcement agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The wife and son of white separatist Randy Weaver were shot to death during the siege, which became a cause celebre to anti-government activists.

A 1994 Justice Department report on the shootings faulted the FBI for overreacting, resulting in disciplinary action against several bureau employees, but said the marshals "took a measured approach in developing a plan to apprehend Weaver."

As a federal prosecutor, Hudson took part in a probe into allegations that then-Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat, attended parties in Virginia Beach where drugs were used. Nothing came of the allegations.

"In his position as a prosecutor, there are plenty of cases he decided not to pursue that people might have wanted him to," McNulty said. "He's had a strong reputation for being willing to make the tough call and walk away if necessary."

Bush appointed Hudson to the federal bench in 2002, and he has maintained his no-nonsense demeanor. Last month, for example, he denied a former state finance chief's request to be allowed to spend the holidays with his family before being sentenced early next year for fraud.

"Given the amount of dishonesty and deceit I've seen in this case, I don't trust you to self-surrender," Hudson told John W. Forbes II before marshals led him away.

Billy Davenport, Chesterfield County chief prosecutor, said Hudson is "always a student. He's always listening." Davenport recalled working with Hudson on Virginia's Criminal Justice Services Board, assigned to shape policy in the criminal justice system and try to satisfy various competing interests.

"No matter what the problem was that we were trying to address or handle, he really could articulate the points and come to a conclusion about it and make sure all the interests were satisfied," Davenport said. "He had that kind of grasp of things that I was always impressed with."

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has know Hudson since the mid-1970s and said he was a "straight arrow."

"He's kind of like a Marine. He calls it like he sees it," Wolf said.

Supporters of the health care legislation have questioned Hudson's impartiality, noting that his financial disclosure forms show him as an investor in the political consulting firm Campaign Solutions Inc.

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who brought the lawsuit challenging the Obama health care, has paid that firm thousands of dollars for website services and credit card processing, including a $166 payment as recently as June, according to Virginia campaign records.

The head of the firm, Rebecca Donatelli, has said that Hudson was a "passive investor" who had owned stock for the past 13 years. She said the judge had no knowledge of the firm's day-to-day operations.

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By LARRY O'DELL, Associated Press
Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.