WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, making its first gesture toward closing the constitutional book on school desegregation, ruled yesterday that public school systems do not have to eliminate all one-race schools.
In a historic decision issued nearly 37 years after the justices in Brown vs. Board of Education unanimously struck down segregated schools, a divided court sent stern orders to lower-court judges to ease their grip on school systems that have obeyed desegregation mandates.
If a school system that once had forced blacks and whites to go to separate schools has carried out desegregation orders in "good faith," has done so for a "reasonable period of time" and no longer makes school policy based on intentional racial bias, its constitutional duty is at an end and court supervision must stop, the court declared by a 5-3 vote.
Without a duty to obey desegregation orders, a school system may return to a neighborhood-school policy, ending cross-town busing.
The court's majority made clear that, even if all or most of the students in many of a community's schools are of one race, that pTC problem is beyond the reach of the courts if the condition cannot be traced to intentional official action.
It is "Draconian," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, for a federal court to keep a school system "under judicial tutelage for the indefinite future. . . . Federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure."
The court, which had said 20 years ago that formerly segregated systems must be "concerned with the elimination of one-race schools," narrowed that duty yesterday to an obligation to eliminate them "to the extent practicable."
The decision was immersed in irony. It came, apparently by coincidence, on the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who led march after march and went to jail to end racial segregation.
Moreover, it provoked a strong dissent from Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black ever to serve on the court, who as a lawyer helped win the original school desegregation case in 1954.
"The majority," Justice Marshall wrote, "suggests that 13 years of desegregation was enough." That is the time span during which the Oklahoma City schools, the system involved in yesterday's case, had been obliged to desegregate under court order.
The new decision also set the stage for a lower court to consider ending the Brown case itself -- a case that still lingers in court. In the latest round, a federal court ruled in late 1989 that the Topeka, Kan., school system has not yet been desegregated, having "exercised a form of benign neglect," and so now must do more.
The Topeka school board has asked the Supreme Court to review that ruling, and the justices may indicate as early as next week what they want done with the Brown case in its latest stage.
Yesterday's decision may also set the stage, according to legal experts on both sides of the continuing controversy, for school districts in scores of cities to try to show they have done enough toward desegregation.
Those experts said that the practical impact of the ruling may depend partly upon whether the Justice Department actively urges local school systems to return to court for relief from existing orders.
The department, which is involved in hundreds of long-standing school cases, has the option of encouraging school districts involved in those cases to go back to court to take advantage of the new ruling.
William Bradford Reynolds Jr., a private lawyer here who was a high-ranking Justice Department official and the architect of the Reagan administration's civil rights policy, said that between 50 and 100 school districts might be eligible to get released from court supervision.
Noting that civil rights groups had fought strenuously to persuade school districts not to return to court when Mr. Reynolds urged them to do so in 1986, he said he expected school districts to move with caution.
"They don't want to rush to be the first ones out there" calling for an end to court supervision, Mr. Reynolds suggested.
William L. Taylor, a Washington civil rights lawyer active in school cases, said that the impact "depends upon the Justice Department. You could see action in as many as a couple of hundred districts if the Justice Department is willing to make trouble."
The Oklahoma City school desegregation case, originally taken to court in 1961, was revived five years ago by black children and parents after the school board returned to a neighborhood-school policy, ending crosstown busing of pupils in all grades below the fifth.
After the policy change, more than half the city's 64 elementary schools returned to one-race student bodies: 11 were 90 percent or more black; 22 were more than 90 percent white. Nearly half of Oklahoma City's black students in kindergarten through fourth grade went to nearly all-black schools, all but one of which were in the predominantly black section of the city.
A federal judge approved the neighborhood plan, but an appeals court overturned that ruling. Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted 5-3 to send the case back for a new look. In the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Byron R. White. Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissent was joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens. The newest justice, David H. Souter, took no part because the case arose before he was on the court.