The New York State Supreme Court, despite its title, is not the state's highest tribunal. It ranks third from the top, behind the Appellate Division and the august Court of Appeals. Accordingly, a rich, Dickensian array of cases comes before the justices in their bleak courtrooms. Homicides, libel suits, and infinite variations on whether evidence should be suppressed on the ground that the police handcuffed the Fourth Amendment in obtaining that evidence.

On occasion, there are also landlord-tenant disputes, such as Richstone v. 1050 Tenants Corp. The tenant is Dr. Geoffrey Richstone, a cardiologist and internist. The landlord is the board of a co-op at 1050 Park Ave., the kind of place where a certain level of income and status is required of prospective co-operators.

At first look, the controversy appeared to be bitter but unremarkable. Although Dr. Richstone's lease runs until 1991, the board wanted him evicted instantly, because, it said, he had improperly installed air-conditioning equipment and made extensive renovations in his office, without permission, thereby "threatening the structural integrity of the premises."

Justice Irma Vidal Santaella was unimpressed with this claim. First of all, she said, the doctor had made all these changes openly, the board knew what was going on and yet it wasn't until eight years after the changes that this landlord tried to evict this tenant. Furthermore, the board had produced no evidence that the building's structural integrity had been threatened. Nothing the doctor did in this regard, said the court, violated the terms of his lease.

There was another claim, however, that the landlord had not raised in the civil court below, but was presenting now. Dr. Richstone had the wrong kinds of patients for this Park Avenue address. Some 60 percent are black and Hispanic, most are elderly and poor and on Medicare. The residents are furious that before nine nearly every day, these people are brought to 1050 Park Avenue by ambulettes, private cars and taxis, creating, it is claimed, traffic congestion. And then they congregate in front of the building leading to more congestion, say the co-operators.

It's true, Dr. Richstone told Bob Herbert of the Daily News, "that my patients don't always move very fast. Some come in on walkers or with canes, or they might be in a wheelchair. They don't sprint."

But the reasons these patients wait in front of the building for the doctor's office to open is that the doormen have been ordered to keep them outside until then. One of the patients particularly remembers a very cold morning when, nonetheless, she and other patients were prevented from coming into the lobby. "They resented us," she says, "they just resented these black people walking into that lobby. It wasn't the doormen. They would always help us out when they could. . . . They would always treat us okay unless they were being watched."

So, said Justice Santaella, the core of this case is not the office alterations but the cooperators' discontent "with the appearance of the patients who are 'mostly elderly black citizens' as 'their presence deters' from {the building's} status as a 'high class luxury residential building' on Park Avenue."

Justice Santaella found it hard to empathize with the anguish and anxiety of the cultivated residents of this high-class luxury residential building. As her opinion indicates she was especially annoyed that not only are the co-operators "incensed and offended by the sight of plaintiff's elderly patients at the sidewalk and entrance of their luxurious building," but they also have requested that the patients "enter by way of a back door of the building so as not to inconvenience the residents."

The court's decision was wholly in favor of Dr. Richstone. It was sufficiently noteworthy to be on the front page of the New York Law Journal. But Justice Santaella is herself noteworthy. She was the first Puerto Rican woman to study law in New York State to be admitted to the bar and the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the State Supreme Court in the county of the Bronx.

"This court," she said in ending her opinion, "is at a loss to understand why {the co-op} requests relief which would in effect deny black senior citizens access to their doctor's office -- for no apparent reason other than their age and race -- in a state that is the citadel of freedom."