WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, promising what could be a historic sequel to the 1954 school desegregation ruling, agreed yesterday to spell out what it means for a school system to be desegregated.
With the original Brown vs. Board of Education case still waiting, in its latest form, behind the scenes on the court's docket, the justices indicated they would define in a Georgia case the final duty of once-segregated schools to clear away all barriers to race equality.
When the decision in the case emerges, probably more than a year from now, it could determine the timing of the end of the nationwide effort to end the use of race as a deciding factor in where students go to school, where teachers teach, where buildings are put up and what courses are taught.
Because the court chose to face that issue in the Georgia case, a new appeal in the old Brown case was left untouched for the time being. Therewas no way to know whether the court had deliberately bypassed that case because of its special, symbolic importance.
The ultimate outcome in the original case from Topeka, Kan., however, seems sure to be shaped by the decision on the Georgia district.
The basic question the court is facing in the new case from suburban DeKalb County -- a broad area in north-central Georgia that takes in a small part of Atlanta and one of its small suburbs, Decatur -- is whether every aspect of school operations must be desegregated together before a community can get free of court supervision of all its activity.
This is what civil rights and school lawyers call the "second generation" school desegregation issue.
Just a month ago, the Supreme Court started providing answers that question, when it decided an Oklahoma City case. Then it ruled 5-3 that, if a district that once was segregated by race had obeyed desegregation orders in "good faith" for a "reasonable period of time," it had met its constitutional duty.
After issuing that decision, the justices confronted three new appeals that also posed the "second generation" issue: the DeKalb County case, the old Brown case and a new version of the first Northern school case ever to reach the court -- from Denver.
Yesterday, the court denied review of the Denver case, left the Brown case on its docket and promised a decision on DeKalb County.
In the Georgia case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Atlanta, ruled more than 16 months ago that a school district that once was officially segregated by race cannot be considered desegregated until:
* Every key facet of school operation -- from student assignment to busing to faculty and staff hiring and placement to arrangements for courses and after-school events -- is desegregated racially.
* That level of across-the-board desegregation has occurred at the same time, not piecemeal and not one step at a time.
* The across-the-board removal of race barriers has been maintained for "several years."
If the school system fails to achieve desegregation in all key educational factors "at the same time for several years," a federal judge must go on monitoring its progress toward becoming a "unitary" system -- that is, a system in which there is one set of schools for all races, not a "dual" system determined in any way by race.
DeKalb County's school system protested to the justices that the ruling in the case of Freeman vs. Pitts (No. 89-1290) potentially means a "never-ending effort to obtain a 'perfect' racially balanced solution."
The court also announced yesterday, after returning from a four-week recess, that it would review two other key controversies:
* It agreed to decide whether the U.S. attorney general has the power to deny political asylum in this country to a refugee because that individual engaged in terrorism in another country.
A lower court, ruling in the case of Joseph Patrick Doherty, a Northern Ireland native who had been convicted of a terrorist murder 11 years ago in North Belfast, decided that the attorney ** general is barred by federal law from considering an alien's acts tTC of terrorism as a basis for denying asylum.
The case is Immigration and Naturalization Service vs. Doherty (No. 90-925).
* The court also said it would rule on whether federal law gives military reservists and members of the National Guard an automatic right to time off for their military training.
The issue arises in an Alabama National Guardsman's case (King vs. St. Bernard's Hospital, No. 90-889). A similar case, involving a former Baltimore policeman, Eric Kolkhorst, now living in Keyser, W.Va., has been appealed to the court by the Baltimore City Police Department, but the justices took no action on that case yesterday.
The cases do not affect military reservists and members of the Guard called to active duty for the Mideast war.