The fight's over -- for now. A deeply divided D.C. Court of Appeals last week decided that the only obligation lawyers have to support public service projects is a moral one. o

Ending months of bitter controversy in the legal community, the ruling allowed the D.C. bar referendum, which prohibited the use of mandatory membership dues for projects such as a lawyer referral service or a citizens advisory committee, to go into effect.

Starting July 1, the bar board of governors can spend dues money only for discipline and registration of lawyers and some housekeeping matters. Those functions cost about $30 per member each year.

The board is scheduled to meet tomorrow to survey the rubble left by the court's decision, to try to figure out which projects can be continued through voluntary contributions and which will have to be curtailed or dropped.

Here's what the ruling could mean:

Up to 20 of the bar's 60 employes may be laid off July 1, especially the nine working on the lawyer referral projects, some of the eight who work on the continuing legal education and publications sections and the two staffers who work for the advisory committee.

The $65 yearly dues, which all lawyers, who want to practice in the District must pay, are certainly on their way down to perhaps a little more than half that.

The ruling, according to bar officials, probably won't affect the bar's continuing legal education courses. Opponents and proponents of the refrendum feel the program probably can survive with some tighter controls, voluntary contributions and perhaps an increase in course fees.

The lawyer referral and information service and some other referral activities, which cost more than $200,000, are probably doomed, certainly in their present form. The same goes for the citizens advisory committee, which cost about $60,000 last year.

But, oddly enough, the court gave the board some leeway in trying to figure out what to do with the much-admired -- and much-hated -- District Lawyer, the bimonthly magazine that has run a $100,000 yearly deficit. The rules governing, the bar, rules set by the court itself when it created the institution and which the ruling last week specifically left intact, require the bar to publish a bulletin or journal. The board apparently can continue to use members dues for that purpose.

And the court did not forever ban the use of dues for broader purposes. It only said that the bar's board of governors could not impose dues for such projects. Should the members of the bar, through a referendum, decide that they wanted to fund any projects, they are free to do so.

The action by the court of appeals -- more specifically the actions of Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. -- left even veteran court watchers a bit puzzled.

Four judges -- Stanley S. Harris, Frank Q. Nebeker, John W. Kern III (the other three members of the gang of four) and Catherine B. Kelly, who generally votes with Newman, joined Harris' opinion upholding the referendum.

Four other judges, including the court's three blacks -- Newman, William C. Pryor and Julia Cooper Mack, plus John Ferren, the former head of the pro bono section of Hogan & Hartson, wrote opinions labeled "dissents" opposing the lawyers' referendum.

4-4 split would have meant the temporary stay would remain in effect until somebody switched or a ninth judge was appointed -- something that could have left the court and the board in a judicial twilight zone for months.

Newman wrote a blistering dissent apparently attacking the four judges supporting the referendum, calling the court's action "shameful." But when it came time to actually vote, Newman provide the crucial fifth vote to let the referendum go into effect.

Newman declined to comment on his reasoning. But some of his colleagues and court watchers believe Newman may have left that a continuing stalemate would not do, that there was no guarantee the ninth judge would vote any differently than Gallagher, and perhaps that there was no way he could defy through delay the wishes of a majority of the bar.