The Supreme Court yesterday rejected the first major attempt by the Reagan administration to win high court approval of its arguments against court-ordered busing.
The court left intact a Nashville ruling that the administration had asked it to review as part of a reexamination of the nation's desegregation policies. The justices acted without dissent and without comment.
The government had hoped to argue in the case that busing plans can be terminated when they cause social, economic or educational dislocation, such as "white flight." Justice Department officials were challenging a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to the contrary.
The challenge was part of a broad administration attack on busing across the country. The government also is urging an appeals court to reconsider a school desegregation plan in East Baton Rouge, La., on the grounds that white students are fleeing the public school system, and has become involved in similar efforts in Charleston, S.C., Yonkers, N.Y., and Chicago.
Yesterday's action does not rule out the possibility of a high court review of busing, nor does it signal disagreement with the administration. The justices have ducked major reviews of court-mandated busing plans for five years, in part because of intense differences among themselves that could further confuse lower courts in this sensitive area.
Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said he would continue efforts in lower courts to offer alternatives to busing and would not "hesitate to again ask the Supreme Court to rule on this question, which is so important to millions of citizens."
Jack Greenberg, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which opposed the government in the Nashville case, called it "another indication that the courts are not going to acquiesce in this Justice Department's effort to overturn decades of school desegregation" rulings. Yesterday's case stems from efforts begun 26 years ago to undo the effects of a segregated school system in Nashville. The most recent chapter was written in 1981, when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a busing program started in 1971 had failed to desegregate schools adequately while at the same time it placed an unfair burden on black children and contributed to "white flight" and other disruptions.
The judge eased busing requirements for the city and for Davidson County, which are consolidated in a metropolitan government, and eliminated the requirements for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
He also ruled that schools with 15 percent black enrollment could be considered desegregated, even though the total black enrollment in the system was 32 percent. An appeals court overturned the district judge.
The federal government was not a party in the case. But in November, it filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging the appellate ruling and saying it was time for the Supreme Court to provide more "guidance" to the subordinate courts.
The action was part of the broader anti-busing challenge by the administration, and the first time it had approached the Supreme Court to attack a court-ordered plan.
Justice Thurgood Marshall did not participate in the case, Metropolitan County Board of Education vs. Kelley.
In other action yesterday:
* The court refused to hear a Michigan couple's challenge of a state law forbidding payments to surrogate mothers. The case, Doe et al. vs. Kelly et al., began when a Wayne County man and his infertile wife tried to hire the husband's secretary for $5,000 to be artificially inseminated and bear a child for them. The couple had contended that the law violated their right to privacy.
* The court agreed to consider whether the public, including reporters, can be excluded from jury selection in a murder trial. The justices will hear an appeal (Press-Enterprise Co. vs. Superior Court of California) by The Riverside Press-Enterprise from a ruling closing the courtroom when jurors were chosen for a 1981 trial involving the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl.
* The justices said they would hear a sex discrimination complaint brought by a woman lawyer against a prominent Atlanta law firm, King & Spalding, when she failed to make partner. The question in Hishon vs. King & Spalding is whether job discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 apply to professional partnership disputes.
* The court declined to enter a controversy (Ohio vs. Kovacs) over whether companies that dump toxic waste may escape cleanup responsibilities by declaring bankruptcy. The court refused to hear Ohio's appeal of a ruling allowing a Hamilton industrial waste company, the Chem-Dyne Co., to avoid complying with state cleanup orders.