Two high-powered Richmond lawyers are wondering who's going to pick up their tab in a case that's caused an uproar in political and legal circles in the Old Dominion.

The lawyers, state bar President James C. Roberts and former attorney general Anthony Troy, say the taxpayers should pay for their defense of Cumberland County Circuit Court Judge John R. Snoddy Jr. against charges that he acted improperly when he freed three convicted drug smugglers from prison after they served less than one-tenth of their sentences.

But lifetime Democrat Snoddy's accuser is current attorney general -- and certain Republican nominee for governor -- J. Marshall Coleman, who contends that the smuggler's lawyers, already working on the case at the expense of their clients, can easily argue the judge's case for him.

The main legal issue is whether Snoddy exceeded his authority under Virginia law when he recently released three of five men he sentenced in 1979 for involvement in a drug smuggling ring. The men were arrested after a police raid that netted 13,400 pounds of marijuana and suitcases stuffed with $1.7 million in cash.

Immediately after the sentencing, lawyers for the five filed motions asking that the sentences be modified. Snoddy, following a traditional practice, took the defense motions under advisement, an action many feel allows judges to make a decision on sentencing at any time.

Snoddy released three of the men separately last year, apparently for being model prisoners and not having prior criminal records. The two men still in prison have petitions for release pending before the judge.

Coleman appealed Snoddy's action to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the law gives judges only 21 days in which to modify a sentence. After that, the prisoners are legally in the hands of the state penal system.

Troy and Roberts are representing Snoddy, with Troy contending that Virginia court rules allow judges to retain private legal representation when their judicial actions are challenged. Ordinarily, judges would be represented by the attorney general's office, he says. But in this case, that would be a conflict of interest.

Deputy Attorney General James Kulp says that Snoddy himself is not named as a defendant in the appeal, so he doesn't need a lawyer. The lawyers for the smugglers can present all the legal issues involved in the appeal. That's what the rules say, Kulp maintains, and that's what should be done.

But the court rules also say that the judge has an option on that issue, and in this case Snoddy has opted not to have those lawyers represent him, Troy says; to wit, the appointment of a special counsel for the judge at the taxpayers' expense -- to wit, Troy and Roberts.

Coleman agreed to Troy's request to defer the question of attorneys' fees until after the main legal issue is settled -- a seemingly daring move on Troy's part, since resolution of the legal issues could run up a hefty legal bill.

But Troy doesn't appear worried about collecting his money.

Coleman may have an even battle against Troy in arguing for his interpretation of the statute on releasing prisoners. But Coleman may have a rougher time arguing against Troy about who should pay the legal bills.

The court rule on that question was written in 1977 by the then Virginia attorney general, Anthony Troy.