IN RAPIDES PARISH, La., Judge Richard E. Lee is calling it a matter of "family law" and using it to become a local white hero. But it's the same thing that was known 20 years ago as "states' rights" or, for those who were more elegant about it, "interposition." The judge is trying to interpose himself and his state court between three white girls and a federal court's desegregation order. So far, he has succeeded in keeping the girls in the school they want to attend, getting himself cited for contempt of court and providing the inspiration for a new country-western song, "The Ballad of Judge Lee." The tune and the words may be new, but the theme is pretty old. j

It all began, as usual, with a federal judge's order requiring the busing of hundreds of white children to formerly black schools. Most of the people in Rapides Parish went along grudgingly. But not the families of the three white girls. They decided their daughters would be better off if they were bused to an all-white high school in another district rather than to a desegregated school in their own district.

That's not so unusual. But then the families got the bright idea -- it's not clear just where they got it -- to ask Judge Lee to place their daughters in the "custody" of families in that other district. The judge eventually went so far as to make the girls "wards" of his court and to order the all-white school to admit them.

Not surprisingly, the federal judge decided Judge Lee's action was a "sham." He ordered the girls back to the school in their own district. Judge Lee countermanded that order and personally escorted the girls to the school of his choice. That's where it stood over the weekend, although Judge Lee has been told to explain to the federal judge on Thursday why he shouldn't be held in contempt.

Ah, the memories this confrontation conjures up: Ross Barnett, George Wallace, Leander Perez, contempt hearings in New Orleans and Americus, and the blocked schoolhouse doors in Oxford and Tuscaloosa. Just as it was in Rapides Parish, so too there was a new legal theory -- or a new twist on an old one -- each time. Judge Lee's family-law idea is now having its run. The odds are that it, like the others, will careen into the junkyard one day soon -- perhaps taking the ballad of Judge Lee with it -- when the federal judiciary is through with it.