The Supreme Court has put off until next week a decision on whether it will hear a challenge to credit union expansions.

The justices were expected to announce Tuesday if they would accept the AT&T Family Federal Credit Union case. Instead, they will discuss the case privately on Friday, with an announcement expected Monday.

This is the second time the justices have passed on the appeal without explanation.

The case questions the right of occupation-based credit unions to serve employees at more than company. A decision could affect 3,586 credit unions.

Banking and credit union lawyers said there are three possible reasons for the delay.

The justices may not have had enough time to fully debate the case. Rather than rushing to judgment, they decided to put the case off, the lawyers said.

The justices also may be waiting for the federal appeals court in Cincinnati to decide a similar case, the lawyers said.

Finally, the justices may be planning to use an unrelated case concerning environmental protection laws to redefine who can sue government agencies. That so-called standing issue also is before the justices in the AT&T Family case; credit unions are challenging the right of bankers to contest National Credit Union Administration rulings. The justices may want to resolve the environmental case first.

Banking industry officials said they expect the Supreme Court eventually will reject the case. "The likelihood that they will grant cert appears slim," said Michael F. Crotty, deputy general counsel for litigation at the American Bankers Association.

Credit union officials said they are taking the delays in stride.

"Our credit union is doing O.K.," AT&T Family president Marcus Schaefer said. "The people who are being impacted by the delays are consumers who work for small businesses and cannot join credit unions."

"We are all a little antsy and would love to have a decision by the Supreme Court," said Kenneth L. Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions. "But I'd rather have them be thorough than quick."

Mr. Robinson said the delay will not hurt the trade group's push for legislation allowing credit unions to expand. A House Banking subcommittee will hold a hearing on this issue Feb. 26.

The case began in December 1990 when five North Carolina banks and the ABA sued the NCUA for allowing AT&T Family to serve employees at more than 150 different companies.

The two sides battled for six years until July 1996, when the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that all members of a federal credit union must share a single, common bond.

The bankers immediately sought to capitalize on the ruling, convincing a federal judge to issue a nationwide injunction that prevented credit unions from adding new companies to their fields of membership.

The judge also ruled that credit unions could not sign up additional customers from companies they already serve unless they share a common bond with the core membership. Credit union officials estimated that the ruling prevented 4,400 people a day from joining the nonprofit financial institutions. The federal appeals court temporarily blocked that part of the order pending Supreme Court review of the AT&T case.

Separately on Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Greene County Bank, Strafford, Mo. The bank had challenged a fine by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for improperly managing its interest rate risk.

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