WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will decide whether the public and news media have a right to attend pretrial hearings, the decisive stage in nine out of 10 criminal prosecutions.

The court thus agreed to settle a question left unanswered by two of its rulings since 1980 that granted the press and public the right to be present at criminal trials and at jury selection proceedings.

In the latest case, news agencies challenged their exclusion from a 41-day pretrial hearing for a California nurse, Robert Rubane Diaz, who later was convicted of killing 12 hospital patients.

In other developments Tuesday, the justices:

- Allowed California to impose a $250,000 limit on the amount a victim of medical malpractice may recover for such non-economic losses as pain and suffering. A California man who suffered a heart attack said the limit denied him adequate compensation for a late diagnosis that could shorten his life.

- Agreed to decide whether the government may prohibit Indians from capturing and killing bald and golden eagles. The court will review a ruling from South Dakota that allows federal officials to prosecute Indians for selling eagles and eagle parts but bars prosecution when the birds are killed on Indian reservations for use in tribal ceremonies.

- Agreed to take a new look at state laws that set time limits on when the mother of an illegitimate child may sue the alleged father for support payments. The court will review a Pennsylvania law that requires support claims to be filed within six years of the child's birth, or within two years from the time the reputed father stops making voluntary payments.

- Heard arguments in a church-state case from Pennsylvania over whether public high schools may permit student religious groups to meet during school hours.

In the press access case, the Riverside Press-Enterprise contends the public and news agencies have a right to attend pretrial hearings, where nearly all criminal prosecutions are concluded.

The newspaper is challenging its exclusion from the pretrial proceedings for Diaz, a coronary care nurse at the Community Hospital of the Valleys in Perris, Calif. He later was sentenced to die in the killing of 12 elderly patients given overdoses of the heart-regulating drug lidocaine.

The presiding state judge conducted the 41-day preliminary hearing in private at the request of Diaz's lawyer.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the public and press have a constitutional right to attend criminal trials. The court said judges may conduct trials, or portions of them, in secret only as a last resort to ensure fairness and only after telling why such steps are necessary.

The ruling was extended to jury selection in criminal cases in 1984.

In 1979, the court said the press and public do not have a right to attend pretrial proceedings under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a defendant a right to an open trial. That ruling did not answer whether First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free press do provide a basis for opening pretrial hearings to news agencies and the public.

The appeal is supported by a number of news organizations, including other newspapers in California, The Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, NBC and the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Northern California.

In other matters, the court:

- Agreed to hear the appeal of South Carolina death row inmate Ronald DeRoy Skipper, convicted of the 1982 strangling of Maryanne Wray.

- Agreed to decide whether the federal government may force Indiana dentists to submit patients' X-rays to insurance companies as a cost-control move. A lower court said the dentists acted lawfully in withholding the dental records.

- Agreed to review the constitutionality of a former government policy that cut off some Social Security benefits to divorced spouses over 60 who remarried, but not to widows and widowers who remarried.