WASHINGTON - A federal judge has hinted that he might reverse a decision by the National Credit Union Administration to let a Houston institution open its doors to all metropolitan area residents 50 or older - about 500,000 people.

Lawyers representing the NCUA argued during a hearing that its decision - challenged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Texas bankers - represented a reasonable interpretation of the "common bond" that unites credit union members.

But Judge John H. Pratt seemed to doubt the agency's position that people had anything in common simply because they were 50 or older.

"As a member of that (age) group, I don't believe it's so," he said last Friday. "As a matter of fact, I think I would very much resent" being pigeonholed according to age.

Although it is often difficult to predict a judge's decision from a trial, Judge Pratt's comments echoed arguments of lawyers representing an array of Texas bankers.

"I think it went very well," said Kelly Rodgers, assistant general counsel for the Texas Bankers Association, one of the plaintiffs. The Texas Independent Bankers and a handful of individual banks also are suing the agency.

But Jon Canerday, a trial attorney for the NCUA, cautioned against predicting a decision from courtroom comments and predicted victory.

"I think a lot of times you can't predict the way a judge will rule based on the questions he asks," he said. "I personally am confident that the agency's interpretation of common bond will be upheld."

If the judge rules their way, the decision would be a big win for bankers. The suit would reverse only this particular widening of membership, but a decision would set a precedent to challenge other expansions.

Bankers in eight states have sued federal or local regulators over credit union expansions, but they have yet to win a victory on the merits since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in April 1993 that banks had the right to sue the NCUA.

In fact, Judge Pratt handed bankers a defeat last September. A group of North Carolina banks were suing the agency for letting AT&T Family Federal Credit Union take in employees of unrelated occupational groups.

Judge Pratt ruled that the expansions were a reasonable interpretation of common bond and the agency acted properly.

His comments Friday suggested a higher level of skepticism regarding the expansions in Houston.

"This is a much broader application of common bond than in the previous case," the judge said.

"I think the judge understood the difference between this case and the (American Bankers Association) case in the fall," Ms. Rodgers said.

The NCUA in February 1994 allowed Communicators Federal Credit Union to take in anyone 50 years or older who lived within 25 miles of Houston. Under the NCUA policy in place for 10 years, credit unions can add groups of senior citizens to their membership rolls.

The move infuriated bankers, who filed suit against the agency that summer.

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