ADAMS V. BENNETT, one of the most drawn-out and complicated cases ever to be considered in the U.S. district court here, has been completed. On Monday, Judge John Pratt ended a lawsuit that had been filed in 1970. The various orders, consent decrees and appeals involved in the litigation took 12 pages to describe. At issue was the diligence of the Office of Civil Rights -- it used to be in the old HEW and is now in the Department of Education -- and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in the Department of Labor in enforcing various civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in any program receiving federal funds.

Plaintiffs in the case, led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, asked the court, in effect, to supervise these federal offices to ensure that desegregation was being accomplished or to order a cutoff of federal funds if progress was not being made. Beginning in 1972, Judge Pratt issued a series of orders and approved a series of consent decrees that involved timetables for OCR and OFCC actions. Over the next 12 years these directives became more and more elaborate and comprehensive, until the federal agencies complained that the court was encroaching on executive responsibility.

In 1984, the Supreme Court decided Allen v. Wright, a case in which black parents challenged the tax-exempt status of segregated private schools in the South. The court held that the parents did not have standing to bring the suit. Ordinary citizens, the opinion said, cannot challenge the government's enforcement of a law unless they can demonstrate specific injury that is directly traceable to the action challenged and likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision. In light of this ruling, Judge Pratt reviewed the Adams litigation and found that the plaintiffs lack standing because the segregation they complain of is not due to federal action or inaction but to state and local practice. In addition, he wrote, while a court order can make the OCR and OFCC more efficient, it cannot by itself eliminate segregation. The plaintiffs argue that federal funds subsidize segregation and that the credible threat of withdrawal of those funds is designed to redress that grievance. They will appeal.

A great deal of progress has been made in desegregating schools and colleges because of this litigation, and for that Judge Pratt deserves much credit. His opinion, in addition, raises some questions that merit further consideration. How realistic is it, for example, to hold universities to goals and timetables that are objectively viewed as extremely difficult to achieve, and how fair is it -- particularly to struggling, predominantly black colleges -- to withdraw federal funds because an institution cannot attract applicants of a certain race? This is peripheral, though, to the finding that broadly based class actions to compel the federal government to enforce antidiscrimination statutes involving federal funds cannot be sustained. Individual suits by parties directly injured must be brought in the case of each institution. If the appellate courts sustain this finding, Congress may want to reconsider the enforcement mechanism of these civil rights laws.