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BY STEPPING DOWN, MARSHALL LETS COURT TURN FURTHER RIGHT

With the announcement Thursday that he will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court after 24 years of historic service there, Justice Thurgood Marshall has opened the door to something he long fought to avoid.

His retirement gives President Bush the opportunity to make his second appointment to the high court, a move that can be expected to bolster the court's conservative majority that has been chafing at many of Marshall's liberal decisions.That, of course, makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will restrict affirmative action, enhance law enforcement efforts and overturn or further moderate the court's abortion rulings.

Meanwhile, Marshall's place in history is already secure.

When appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, Marshall became the first and so far only black ever to serve there.

But even if he had never been elevated to the Supreme Court, Marshall would have gone down in history as the most influential black lawyer in the country.

As a lawyer, Marshall - who turns 83 next week and is the oldest of the court's nine members - successfully led the fight before the Supreme Court to abolish segregation in public schools.

As a justice, he wrote strongly worded opinions against racial discrimination and the death penalty.

His place in the history of the civil rights movement was assured in 1954 when he convinced the Supreme Court to outlaw the "separate but equal" treatment of the races that had been U.S. public school policy since the turn of the century.

He then played a key role, as attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in enforcing the landmark desegregation ruling throughout the South, where resistance to integration persisted in some places into the 1970s.

Lawyer Marshall also persuaded the Supreme Court to end the South's "white primary" election, from which black voters were excluded, and won a decision that helped outlaw restrictive covenants preventing racial minorities from buying real estate reserved for whites.

In 21 years as chief counsel for the NAACP, Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won all but three of them - an amazing record.

From the beginning to the end of his career - which included service as the federal government's solicitor general - Marshall never hesitated to rock the boat and was a lifelong champion of the poor and racially oppressed.

Though a Supreme Court made more conservative by his departure may overturn some of Marshall's more liberal rulings, at least one of his principles deserves to persist.

That principle is embodied in Marshall's often expressed belief that justice can and should be achieved lawfully without black separatism or violence.