The Supreme Court refused yesterday to allow the Bush administration to pursue a $280 billion penalty against tobacco companies on claims they misled the public about the dangers of smoking.

The decision, a major victory for cigarette makers, was not unexpected because the government's civil case against the tobacco companies is still pending and the federal judge who presided over the trial has not yet decided whether tobacco companies are guilty of wrongdoing. The Supreme Court declined, without comment, to intervene now, but the case could return to the justices next year.

The fight at the high court was over the amount of money the companies would have to pay if U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rules that they violated a federal anti-racketeering law known as RICO.

William Ohlemeyer, vice president of Altria Group Inc., parent of the biggest U.S. cigarette company, Philip Morris USA, said the decision was appropriate. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said that while the administration was disappointed, "we continue to believe very strongly in this case."

William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the Justice Department "should not use the Supreme Court's decision as an excuse to let the tobacco companies off the hook with a weak settlement."

A federal appeals court in Washington had ruled that the government could not pursue the $280 billion, the most ever sought in a U.S. civil racketeering trial.

The Supreme Court is already hearing a case involving RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and whether the law can be used against antiabortion protesters. The law, aimed primarily at fighting mobsters, has both criminal and civil provisions.

The government has said that the $280 billion is an estimate of money that tobacco companies earned through fraudulent activities. It may still pursue a request for $14 billion in stop-smoking and education programs. The government had been criticized for not asking for more; an expert had recommended a $130 billion smoking-cessation program.