A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that law enforcement agencies must give 911 calls dealing with domestic violence equal priority with calls on other emergencies.

The 3 to 0 ruling by a panel of U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges could also have broader ramifications for the emergency response programs run by police agencies, one of the judges said. The 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has jurisdiction over nine western states and the Pacific trust territories.

The case stems from the death of a woman killed by her estranged husband. In 1989, Denise Navarro of Los Angeles called 911 after receiving a warning call from her brother-in-law that the husband was heading to her house to kill her.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department emergency dispatcher told Navarro, who had earlier obtained a restraining order against her husband, Raymond Navarro, that law enforcement officers could not be sent immediately and that she should call back if he arrived.

"Okay, well, the only thing to do is just call us if he comes over there. . . . I mean what can we do?" said the dispatcher. "We can't have a unit sit there to wait and see if he comes over."

Fifteen minutes later, Raymond Navarro arrived, scaled a rear wall to evade a concerned friend stationed at the front of house, and shot and killed his wife and three other people.

At the time, Sheriff Sherman Block defended the dispatcher, saying she did not violate any department procedures. But some groups criticized Block for his defense of the dispatcher, saying she could have done more.

In 1990, Navarro's children sued Los Angeles County, alleging that she had been denied equal protection of the law, among other claims.

Yesterday's ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Robert M. Takasugi, who had dismissed the case.

Judge Andrew Kleinfeld concurred in the appellate ruling but said it could lead to the conclusion that in many cases "police departments must provide bodyguards against threats of domestic violence."

Kleinfeld said "the potential harm" of the decision "is that we substitute our judgment for that of the police about how they set priorities for responding to calls. No one has given us the authority to do that. And we do not know enough about police work to do that."