The Supreme Court yesterday allowed New York City to ban begging in the subway system, refusing to hear arguments that the prohibition on panhandling violates the free speech rights of the poor and homeless.

The court declined to review a decision by the federal appeals court in New York, which said the subway system could ban begging -- even though it allows solicitation by organized charities -- because panhandling is "nothing less than a menace to the common good."

The Legal Action Center for the Homeless, on behalf of two homeless men, had sought Supreme Court review, arguing that "soliciting contributions for oneself" necessarily involves communication protected by the First Amendment. The homeless advocates said that subway officials could take steps to stop beggars from harassing or threatening passengers but that such actions must stop short of completely outlawing panhandling.

The New York City Transit Authority said the ban was necessary to protect riders who complained of being accosted by panhandlers and intimidated into giving them money.

Washington Metro regulations also prohibit begging on subway property, but unlike the New York rules ban organized charitable solicitations as well, so a vote by the court to review the New York case would not necessarily have raised questions about the validity of the Metro rules.

In other action yesterday, the justices agreed to decide whether mandatory retirement rules for state judges constitute illegal age discrimination and whether divorcing spouses, in some situations, can avoid paying court-ordered obligations to their former husbands or wives by declaring bankruptcy.

The subway begging case, Young v. New York City Transit Authority, posed a complex free speech issue involving the line between speech and conduct, and how courts should assess restrictions on conduct that may also involve elements of communication. It also presented the court with two contradictory descriptions of the impact panhandlers have on the subway system.

At the appeals court, the two-judge majority expressed "grave doubt" that begging in the subway is speech entitled to constitutional protection and said the "only message" it could discern "as common to all acts of begging is that beggars want to exact money from those whom they accost."

Even if panhandling does entail some communication protected by the First Amendment, said the majority, Judges Frank X. Altimari and William H. Timbers, the Transit Authority's ban would be justified by its interest in shielding the 3.5 million people who ride the subways each workday and who find themselves intimidated by panhandlers.

It said the difference between panhandling and solicitation by organized charities "must be examined not from the imaginary heights of Mount Olympus but from the very real context of the New York City subway."

The dissenting appeals court judge, Thomas J. Meskill, acknowledged that "the presence of large numbers of beggars in the subway. . . contributes to the sense of chaos and frustration experienced by the many hard-working New Yorkers who rely on the subway system."

But he said a "homeless person politely requesting money" would "hardly daunt the average New Yorker," and that the Transit Authority could take steps to deal with "the panhandler who accosts and intimidates subway riders."

Noting that the plantiffs in the case said they often spoke to those they solicited about the problems of the poor, Meskill said that panhandling by beggars, like solicitation by charities, is "intertwined" with speech. "I simply fail to see why the {Transit Authority} should be able to permit organized charities, but not beggars, to rattle a cup full of change as one passes by," he said.

In the age discrimination case, the court said it would hear a challenge by two Missouri judges to a provision in the state constitution requiring that judges retire at age 70.

The federal age discrimination law prohibits employers -- including states -- from discriminating on the basis of age, but makes an exception for elected officials and appointees "on the policy-making level."

The question presented in Gregory v. Ashcroft is whether appointed judges are "policy-making" employees exempt from the normal bar on mandatory retirement -- an issue that has split the federal appeals courts.

In the Missouri case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- agreeing with a 1st Circuit ruling in a case from Massachusetts -- said judges make policy because they are called on to resolve unsettled issues and therefore "create law."

The 2nd Circuit, in a case from Vermont, said judges do not "create or fashion new policy" but merely "fathom the nature and contours of policies established by the legislative and executive branches" in order to resolve disputes.

The 8th Circuit also rejected the Missouri judges' argument that the mandatory retirement provision violated their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws because it singles out judges.

Like all federal judges, Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. Four of the nine justices who will hear the case are over 70.

The court also agreed to consider another issue that has evenly divided four federal appeals courts: whether a spouse in a divorce case can avoid having to give the other spouse his or her share of the family home by declaring bankruptcy and invoking a provision of the federal bankruptcy code that exempts homesteads from claims by creditors.

The case involves a Wisconsin couple, Gerald J. Sanderfoot and Jeanne Farrey, who were divorced in 1986 after more than 20 years of marriage. The court divided the couple's $60,000 in property equally between them. It gave Sanderfoot the family house and ordered him to pay his former wife $29,000, secured by a lien, or claim, against the home.

Three months later, Sanderfoot filed for bankruptcy and said the lien was wiped out by the bankruptcy code's homestead exemption.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago agreed, saying there are "policy arguments" on the other side but that it was compelled to rule for Sanderfoot by the language of the bankruptcy code.

In a stinging dissent, Judge Richard A. Posner accused his colleagues of placing "the crown of success on this vicious scheme" by Sanderfoot to deprive his ex-wife of her rightful share of their marital property. He said the court had turned the bankruptcy code into "a tool by which bounders defraud their spouses."

In addition yesterday, the court revived a lengthy legal dispute between the federal government and animal-rights activists seeking to save four macaque monkeys used for medical research at a federally funded Silver Spring laboratory. The court said it would decide whether the National Institutes of Health should have been allowed to transfer the lawsuit against it from state to federal court, where it was dismissed.