A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that Capitol Hill Hospital must remain open as an acute-care facility until its owners get permission from the District's health planning board to close.

The decision, lauded by hospital workers who had been notified that they could be laid off starting today, apparently means that the hospital's emergency room, and a range of other medical and surgical services, will continue operating for at least four months, said a leader of the group that brought the suit, D.C. Council member-elect Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6).

"That's my Christmas present," said Aleta Wimbush, 29, a mother of three who works as an operating room secretary at the hospital, at 700 Constitution Ave. NE.

The ruling by Judge Gladys Kessler is the latest development in a long struggle between the hospital owner, Medlantic Healthcare Group, which wants to convert it into a nursing home with geriatric and psychiatric services, and the coalition of union leaders, workers and community residents that wants to save the hospital. As part of its campaign to keep the hospital open, the coalition filed a lawsuit Nov. 5 against the mayor, the D.C. State Health Planning and Development Agency and agency Director Carolyn Graham.

The union group's court petition argued that the health planning agency's regulations require that a hospital get approval to terminate medical-surgical services when capital expenditures are involved. A hospital obtains approval by applying to the agency for a certificate of need to close. The agency holds a public hearing and reviews the application before deciding whether it will issue the certificate. This process usually takes four to six months, Graham said.

City officials said yesterday that they have not decided whether they will appeal Kessler's ruling.

Spokesman Philip Schneider said Medlantic -- which also owns Washington Hospital Center and National Rehabilitation Hospital -- is awaiting direction from the state health planning agency. "We intend to be in compliance with the regulations," he said.

Yesterday the judge, after listening to two days of testimony from both sides, granted the coalition's motion for a preliminary injunction.

Schneider said that before the ruling, Medlantic already had applied for a certificate of need to convert the hospital into a nursing home. A decision is pending. Medlantic did not apply for a separate certificate for permission to end its medical and surgical services, he said, because the corporation did not believe one was necessary.

Hospital administrators said that the ruling will have limited impact on other city hospitals.

"The judge is saying for them to follow the law," said Tom Chapman, president of Greater Southeast Community Hospital. "It sounds like a reasonable decision. There are no prevailing reasons for the shutdown {of Capitol Hill Hospital}, like it is unsafe or there isn't money to meet the payroll."

At issue in the case is whether capital expenditures are involved in the closing of the hospital, thereby triggering the requirement of a certificate of need.

The coalition has argued that capital expenditures are involved because in 1972, Capitol Hill Hospital borrowed money under the federal Hill-Burton loan program and still owes $1.5 million. Hill-Burton loans were made available at a reduced rate to enable hospitals to build and modernize facilities.

Medlantic contends the balance on its Hill-Burton loan is transferrable from Capitol Hill Hospital to the proposed nursing home.

But the judge interpreted the Hill-Burton loan rules to mean that the loan would have to be paid off immediately if the hospital ends its medical-surgical services. That amounts to a capital expenditure, the court said.

Word of the decision spread rapidly throughout the hospital.

"I was in the lobby when the {switchboard} operator yelled out, 'We won, we won,' " said registered nurse Ruthanne Goldsmith. "By the time I left the lobby and went to lunch downstairs in the dining room, about five minutes later, everyone there seemed to know. There was a wonderful feeling of elation."

Coalition leader Richard Ehrmann, a vice president of Local 1199E-DC of the Service Employees International Union representing service workers at the hospital, was in the courtroom when the judge issued her ruling.

"I'm trying not to cry," Ehrmann said then. "I'm so grateful . . . . A hospital is not like a candy store. It is a critical asset to the community that provides life-saving services."