The Justice Department, in a shift welcomed by civil rights leaders, has retreated from a Reagan-era policy of attacking court-ordered school desegregation plans.

John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in an interview yesterday that the department has not proposed that any school boards seek dismissal of court-ordered desegregation plans since Dick Thornburgh became attorney general in August 1988 and has "no plans to initiate any kind of action" in the future.

Under Dunne's predecessor, William Bradford Reynolds, the Justice Department approached at least 82 school boards in Georgia about freeing themselves from court-ordered desegregation plans. Reynolds began a systematic review of school desegregation cases in southern states to determine if the court orders should be terminated.

That effort was "put on hold" after Reynolds's departure in 1988, but some civil rights lawyers feared it might be renewed after the Supreme Court's decision last week in a case brought by the Oklahoma City school system.

In Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the court found that school systems that once discriminated on the basis of race could be freed from court-ordered busing plans if they had complied with the orders and done their best to erase "the vestiges of past discrimination." The ruling encouraged some opponents of busing, although civil rights lawyers said much was left undecided.

The department is a party in 470 school desegregation cases, most of which require busing. Dunne said the civil rights division will support local school boards if it believes court orders should be lifted.

He also did not rule out the possibility that the department might approach a school board about dismissing a case if officials thought a dismissal was warranted, adding, "I don't know what circumstances that would be."

But Dunne emphasized that "our plan now does not include looking for cases in which to take the initiative. We will continue our policy of reviewing {cases} so that principally we can determine whether there is compliance with the court decree of eliminating segregation."

Gwendolyn B. Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, applauded the department's new stance, saying its intervention in some cases "put pressure on the school board to do things that it might not want to do."

"This way it leaves it up to the school board to make a decision about what they want to do," Gregory said.

Gregory said school boards typically welcomed the possibility that their cases might be dismissed, then began "grumbling" as they realized the Justice Department's overture reignited controversy in their communities over the busing issue.

"They might not be unhappy letting sleeping dogs lie," she said. "Everything is going along fine, then suddenly Justice shows up and there's a big brouhaha."

Chris Hansen, a lawyer who handles desegregation cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the policy seems to "reflect a less ideological stance on school desegregation issues" under Thornburgh.

But as a practical matter, he said, "it may not make a huge difference. Those school districts that want out of their plans have been trying and will continue trying."

Julius Chambers, executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the new policy "a very responsible position for the department to take."