A civil rights lawyer said Wednesday a key 1976 Supreme Court decision used to fight racial discrimination is helping eradicate "the badges of slavery" that Congress sought to eliminate 122 years ago.

Attorney Julius LeVonne Chambers of New York urged the court to uphold its 1976 ruling and not retreat from a battle against bias that he said has been at least implicitly endorsed by Congress.The court heard arguments over whether a federal law enacted in 1866 may be invoked to sue private citizens accused of discrimination.

"Congress had egregious conduct to correct" in the wake of the Civil War, Chambers said. And, he continued, "Congress meant to reach the type of conduct" at issue in Wednesday'scase. "The badges of slavery was what Congress was trying to reach."

Roger S. Kaplan, a New York lawyer representing an employer accused of discrimination, said the 1866 law "would not reach private acts of discrimination" and the court in 1976 interfered with the will of Congress in extending the reach of the old statute.

Kaplan encountered sharp questioning from the justices when he said the proper course now for the court was to abandon precedent and reverse its 12-year-old ruling.

Justice Antonin Scalia said Kaplan must come up with something more than the argument that the 1976 ruling interfered with congressional prerogatives.

"If that's all you have, I'm afraid it's nothing," Scalia said.

The court sent shock waves through the civil rights community last April when it announced it would explore the issue in a case from North Carolina involving charges of on-the-job racial harassment.