WASHINGTON -- In the most important desegregation ruling in years, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 yesterday that school districts that have ended race segregation do not have to adopt busing or other "heroic measures" to avoid a return of one-race schools.
If school officials themselves did not cause "resegregation," which instead resulted from population shifts or housing patterns that can't be blamed on the schools, the districts have no duty to undo the racial separation, the court also ruled.
America is a nation whose people move a lot, the court's main opinion said, so it is "inevitable" that the racial makeup of school populations "may undergo rapid change."
The court added: "Where resegregation is a product not of [official] action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications."
Potentially, the ruling may affect when and how scores of districts that once had required black and white students to go to different schools can get out from under federal judges' desegregation orders.
The decision could have a direct effect in Maryland on Prince George's County -- the only school system in the state under a desegregation order, an official there said.
W. Bradford Reynolds, a former top Reagan administration official who had urged the end of many such orders, said the new decision will give federal judges "wide discretion to move away from court decrees, partially or wholesale." Now a Washington lawyer, Mr. Reynolds predicted that many federal judges will use the discretion to become "less and less entangled with desegregation cases."
William L. Taylor, a leading civil rights lawyer here and an expert on desegregation, said "there is no way to read this that isn't a retreat" from the court's famous original ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education 38 years ago. "It moves in the wrong direction, and I find it very troubling," he added.
As a mere coincidence, the Brown case itself is still in the courts and in fact is waiting on the Supreme Court's docket now. It may be affected directly by the new decision. The decision yesterday came in a case from the suburbs of Atlanta, in DeKalb County.
Eight justices cast their votes unanimously for the result in the new case, but they explained the decision in four separate opinions that may leave federal judges and school officials in some doubt about their new duties.
The ninth and newest justice, Clarence Thomas, took no part in the ruling because the case first arose before he joined the court last fall.
Justice Thomas, however, could play a most significant role when a future case comes up to test the scope of the new ruling, because some legal analysts counted the eight other justices' votes as split 4-4 on key aspects of the new ruling.
For example, Mr. Taylor said the ruling was "muddled and ambiguous" and the court was evenly divided on the formulas that federal judges must now use to decide when to release a school system from a desegregation decree.
The civil rights lawyer, who strongly opposed Justice Thomas' nomination to the court last summer, remarked: "The next time around, Lord save us, Clarence Thomas may be a decisive voice."
As a judge, Mr. Thomas has never given his views on school desegregation, but as a government official, he had sharp criticism for some of the Supreme Court's rulings following the Brown decision, and even expressed some doubt about that ruling.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the court's main opinion, and that had the support of four other justices. However, one of those four, David H. Souter, wrote a brief separate opinion implying that school districts should have to meet some tougher standards before court orders against them could be relaxed.
Another member of that majority, Justice Antonin Scalia, who is the court's most conservative member, argued that the time was coming to an end when "violations of the Constitution dating from the days when Lyndon Johnson was president, or earlier, continue to have an appreciable effect upon current operation of schools."
Three justices -- Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor and )) John Paul Stevens -- joined in a separate opinion suggesting that school officials would have a difficult time proving that there were no links between their official policies and resegregated schools. That opinion was written by Mr. Blackmun.
Those three, together with Mr. Souter, appeared to be sending signals of caution to federal judges asked to back out of desegregation cases.
The new ruling stressed heavily the value of "returning schools to the control of local authorities at the earliest practicable date." At the same time, however, it warned once-segregated systems that "racial hostility is still present in our country," and can emerge in "new and subtle forms." So, it said, school officials must "ensure that such forces do not shape or control" school policies.
The decision laid down these new guidelines for federal judges overseeing formerly segregated districts:
* The district can come out from under court orders one step at a time -- "an incremental or partial withdrawal" -- and need not achieve a completely segregated system all at once in all operations.
* If the school system can show that it has obeyed past court orders in "good faith," a judge can withdraw from any further supervision of any aspect of school operations that fully satisfies a past order -- for example, an order to integrate students racially in classrooms or schools, or to desegregate faculties, or to equalize access to materials.
* No judge is free to continue supervising any single aspect of school operations unless it can be proved that the racial separation was "traceable" to official policy.
* Schools are not responsible, and judges cannot make them so, for new forms of racial separation that result from purely private choices of people about where to live.
* However, success in desegregating one part of school operations -- for example, student or faculty placement -- will not end a judge's supervision if that part is still affected by some continuing segregation elsewhere in the system.
* Court supervision may also have to continue if the school system cannot show to "the public" and to black parents and children that the system has done what it could to obey all aspects of a court order.
The decision ordered a federal appeals court, and a federal judge in Atlanta, to reconsider the whole question of when the school system in DeKalb County, Ga., can start coming out from under a 23-year-old desegregation decree.
When those courts do that, the majority cautioned, they are not to require "heroic measures . . . to ensure racial balance in student assignments systemwide."