The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that District of Columbia residents do not have a constitutional right to a voting representative in Congress, ending a two-year legal battle waged by a diverse coalition of community leaders and activists.

Without even giving the issue a full-blown hearing, the justices affirmed a ruling issued in March by a special three-judge panel. The justices decided the case after reviewing briefs, rejecting the activists' bid for oral arguments.

The ruling was a blow to dozens of prominent plaintiffs who had turned to the courts for what they hoped would be a landmark voting rights decision. They contended that the District's 519,000 residents should have the same rights as citizens in the 50 states to choose voting members of Congress. The District has an elected delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who can vote on House committees but not on the House floor.

With the courts no longer a viable option, Norton and others said the battle will shift to Congress. Norton said she intends to introduce legislation next year that would give the District a vote in Congress. Other proponents said they will step up efforts to generate national awareness of the issue in hopes of cultivating more support.

"I had been prepared to lose in court, but not to lose the issue," Norton said. "I regard this as a winnable cause--and winnable in the near term."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) also called for legislative intervention, saying D.C. voters pay national taxes and are subject to federal laws but cannot hold Congress accountable. "There are only three groups of people denied voting rights in our country: children, convicted criminals and citizens of the District of Columbia," he said.

But the political process is loaded with obstacles. The Republican-controlled Congress wouldn't even permit the D.C. government, a named plaintiff in the case, to use taxpayer money on the lawsuit. Norton proposed similar legislation in 1998 that stalled in committee, and a 1976 quest for a constitutional amendment also fizzled.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision in a pair of cases that had the potential to reverse 199 years of federal tradition. In March, the three-judge panel ruled 2 to 1 that the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent provide voting rights in Congress only to people living in states, and not to residents of the District.

The panel's ruling hinged largely upon Article I of the Constitution, which says that Congress shall comprise "Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States." Because the District is not a state, the majority held, its residents are not entitled to a vote in Congress. The majority ruling said the court was not "blind to the inequity of the situation" but said it was up to Congress to act.

Because the lawsuits concerned voting rights, they were entitled to automatic review by the Supreme Court. But there was never a guarantee that all nine justices would convene a full-scale hearing. The Supreme Court did not explain its decision yesterday, but the outcome of the case creates a legal precedent, lawyers said.

One suit, Adams v. Clinton, wanted the court to make it possible for D.C. residents to choose statehood or unite with another state. The other, Alexander v. Daley, wanted the court to order Congress to find a way to provide the District a vote.

The Adams complaint was pushed by a group of 20 activists led by lawyer George S. LaRoche. LaRoche said the timing wasn't right to get the Supreme Court to hear the issue, adding: "The question we have presented, as interesting as it is as a legal matter, is still a political hot potato. . . . The politics in this are overwhelming."

The Alexander suit was filed by the D.C. government and 57 residents, including former mayor Walter E. Washington and civil rights leaders Dorothy I. Height and Roger Wilkins. Former deputy corporation counsel Walter A. Smith Jr. worked on the case, volunteering along with American University professor Jamin B. Raskin and lawyers from Covington & Burling and other D.C. law firms.

"I had a feeling that once we got it going, we could get enough interest generated that the Supreme Court would take it," said Charles A. Miller, a lawyer from Covington & Burling. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way."

The three-judge panel's majority opinion in March was written by Merrick B. Garland, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, of U.S. District Court. The dissent was written by Senior U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer.

In asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, lawyers in the Alexander case contended that the right to vote for congressional representation is a fundamental part of national citizenship. The League of Women Voters of the United States and the American Bar Association filed papers supporting the activists' position.

The Justice Department, representing the federal government, urged the justices to follow a "most literal reading" of Article I and the meaning of "States." The Clinton administration has supported voting rights for the District but argued that the issue is not a matter for the courts to decide.

The legal arguments date back to 1801, when Virginia and Maryland gave up land for the creation of a federal seat of government.

Before that, people living in the area that became the District were able to vote in national elections in Maryland and Virginia. One section of the District was returned to Virginia in 1847, but people in the rest of the District have since been shut out of a say in Congress. It wasn't until 1960 that Congress passed a constitutional amendment that gave citizens in the District the right to vote in presidential elections.

Only one Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, voted to hear oral arguments in the Alexander suit. Stevens said he would have let the Adams ruling stand.

Leaders of a nonprofit group called DC Vote said they will move forward with their grass-roots campaign for the cause. In November, the District will begin distributing license plates that read, "Washington D.C.--Taxation Without Representation."