A federal judge has barred 3,586 credit unions from adding any new members who do not work for the business they were chartered to serve.
In August and September alone, these occupation-based credit unions added 133,000 employees of unrelated companies to their fields of membership.
"The order is very broad," National Credit Union Administration Chairman Norman D'Amours said in an interview Monday. "It is about as bad as it could be."
However, the order in the controversial AT&T Family Federal Credit Union case does not require credit unions to stop serving existing customers.
Mr. D'Amours said the NCUA may appeal the order to the Supreme Court, a process that could take several months. The agency was expected to release a letter late Monday to all credit unions explaining the ruling.
The decision will prevent credit unions from reaching out to low-income consumers, he said.
Credit union trade group officials said they will ask the judge to delay his order pending the agency's appeal.
Bankers applauded the ruling, which was issued late Friday by Judge Thomas P. Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "We are really pleased," said James M. Culberson Jr., past president of the American Bankers Association and chairman at First National Bank and Trust Co. in Asheboro, N.C. "We felt from the very beginning they were violating the law."
First National competes with AT&T Family of nearby Winston-Salem, which serves more than 150 companies nationwide. Mr. Culberson's was one of four banks from the area to sue the NCUA in over the issue in 1990.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled July 30 that the NCUA violated the law when it let AT&T Family expand. It said all members of credit union must share a single common bond. Then on Wednesday, the appeals court refused to reconsider its ruling. It ordered Judge Jackson to implement the decision.
"This says one of our unfair competitors has to play a little more fairly," said Stephen L. Price, president of Florida Community Bank in Immokalee. "It is not going to level the playing field, but it is a start."
The credit union trade groups vowed to continue fighting.
"The ruling signals a new impetus for the credit union community to move forward in a united action on all fronts - legal, legislative, and public - to do whatever we can to overturn this decision," said Ken Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.
The Credit Union National Association "will continue to do everything in its power to overturn this anticonsumer ruling," the group's president, Daniel A. Mica, wrote in a memo to his members.
"We are disappointed," said Marcus Schaefer, president of AT&T Family. "Clearly the court is not considering the impact on millions of Americans. These are real people who are going to be hurt."
Officials from the NCUA, the Justice Department, and the two credit union trade groups met Sunday and Monday to plot their strategy. Legal observers expect the Justice Department to appeal the July 30 decision to the Supreme Court within the next two months. That would allow the appeal to be heard in late spring.
Judge Jackson wrote that he issued the order because the NCUA did not voluntarily stop granting field-of-membership expansions."It is indisputably in the public's interest that the law, once authoritatively declared, be as authoritatively enforced," he said.