Leaving intact a ruling that provides unprecedented legal protections for gays and lesbians, a federal appeals court on Tuesday refused to reconsider a case that found it unconstitutional to exclude jurors from civil trials based on their sexual orientation.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a brief order, voted against rehearing the January ruling with a new 11-judge panel. Three of the court's most conservative judges dissented, calling the ruling "regrettable" and saying it could have sweeping implications for a range of legal issues involving gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage cases that continue to unfold in the Western states encompassed by the 9th Circuit.

A unanimous three-judge 9th Circuit panel found earlier this year that sexual orientation deserves the strongest anti-discrimination protections in civil rights law, extending the same rights to gays and lesbians that are in place for women and minorities. The decision relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.

The 9th Circuit case involves a high-stakes antitrust showdown between Abbott Laboratories and SmithKline Beecham that went to trial in Oakland federal court in 2011. In appealing the case, SmithKline argued that Abbott lawyers during jury selection deliberately removed a juror who was gay because the trial involved a claim that Abbott dramatically jacked up the price of a crucial HIV treatment drug.

Abbvie, a spinoff of Abbott, decided against asking the 9th Circuit to rehear the January ruling, which ordered a new trial because of the finding jury selection was tainted by potential gay bias. But a member of the court exercised the right to ask for an internal vote on whether to rehear the case. A majority of the court's 29 full-time judges is needed to approve such a move, and that vote fell short, according to Tuesday's order.

With Abbott declining to appeal, the chances of the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the issue appear unlikely, although the three dissenters gave the high court legal fodder. Gay marriage foes defending same-sex marriage bans in other states within the 9th Circuit, such as Idaho and Oregon, also could raise the issue because of their concerns the legal standard in the SmithKline case has extended to their court battles.

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz