The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that pretrial hearings on motions to suppress evidence in the case of Timothy Joseph Buzbee, who is accused of several rapes in Montgomery County's Aspen Hill area, must be open to the public and the press.

The state's highest court turned aside arguments by Buzbee's defense attorney, who maintained that holding the hearings in open court would generate publicity that could make it impossible for Buzbee to get a fair trial in the county. The attorney, Reginald W. Bours III, had won a ruling from Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Rosalyn B. Bell that the hearings should be closed to the press and public.

Bell's ruling was overturned by the state's intermediate appellate panel last month after three newspapers argued that the public has a constitutional right to attend the hearings. Bours then appealed to the higher court.

In its ruling yesterday, the Court of Appeals resolved the confrontation between competing constitutional principles--the defendant's right to a fair trial and the public's right to know--that arose when Bours sought to have the hearing closed and attempted other measures to restrict press coverage of the case.

The court issued its one-sentence ruling a few hours after hearing arguments in the case, but a lengthier opinion will follow. The state's highest court had never before ruled on the issue, so its opinion could set the state standard in determining when, if ever, a criminal proceeding may be closed to the public.

Upholding the intermediate court on a second issue, the Court of Appeals lifted a "gag order" that prohibited attorneys, police, Buzbee's family and prospective witnesses from talking publicly about the case.

The case has received substantial publicity since last November, when Buzbee was arrested and later charged in connection with five of the 16 sexual assaults that had terrorized the Aspen Hill community for 18 months.

The hearing that Bours sought to have closed is scheduled for next Tuesday. Bours is expected to argue then that certain evidence against Buzbee should be thrown out because police acquired it improperly. If the evidence is indeed thrown out, Bours has argued, publicity about it could prejudice Buzbee's trial.

The Montgomery Journal, The Montgomery Sentinel and The Washington Post intervened in the case, arguing that the defense had failed to show that the publicity would prevent a fair trial and that Bell's order violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.