A bitter behind-the-scenes split over strategy and philosophy has surfaced in the lawyers' committee that represents thousands of Dalkon Shield victims in the A. H. Robins Co. voluntary bankruptcy.

The split emerged after U.S. Trustee William C. White, a Justice Department official, petitioned the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond on Monday to disband or reform the Committee of Representatives of Dalkon Shield Claimants. White's petition said the committee was not manageable, but he declined to elaborate.

Paul D. Rheingold, who was a committee member but said he has resigned, charged that, in numerous meetings since late September, one faction consistently has urged the panel to petition U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. to disqualify himself for "evidencing a bias for Robins in his rulings."

"I certainly don't believe he should recuse himself," Rheingold said in a telephone interview.

Committee member Clifford J. Shoemaker, a Rheingold ally, agreed.

Merhige is "one of the best judges we could have for the case," Shoemaker said. "He has always been completely fair . . . and will do everything in his power to see that the women are fully and fairly compensated, regardless of the effect on Robins."

Merhige has presided since Robins filed under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code last Aug. 21, which halted the product-liability lawsuits of about 5,100 U.S. women. In a courtroom exchange the next day, Merhige called company chairman E. Claiborne Robins "a neighbor and a fine man," and said he had met with Robins before the filing "just by accident, I suspect."

Rheingold complained of the panel's persisting "unalterable opposition to anything that Robins ever did" and of a majority decision to replace committee counsel Murray Drabkin of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a Washington law firm. Shoemaker endorsed Rheingold's views.

Both lawyers said the philosophical split is over whether to cooperate with the bankruptcy process, as they want to do, or to fight it.

Committee Chairman Mary Beth Ramey of Indianapolis criticized trustee White for branding the panel "not manageable and representative." She also criticized Rheingold for advertising for Shield clients, and said he created dissension on the committee.

"I don't know of any reason why White could form a conclusion that the committee is unmanageable," Ramey said. "I don't know what he means."

Ramey said that dissolution "would result in total, complete, chaotic disaster. There would be no one to protect the injured. There would be no one who cares . . . . The claimants would be totally at the mercy, basically, of whatever Robins decides to do." Rheingold, told of Ramey's comments, concurred.

Rheingold and Shoemaker said, however, that changing the panel's size and membership is necessary.

Ramey's criticism of Rheingold arose after the committee decided that none of its members should advertise for Shield clients. Rheingold advertised in East Coast newspapers, including The Washington Post. As a result, the committee removed him from its executive leadership unit and asked him to show cause why he should not be dropped from the panel itself.

Rheingold said he now has about 1,200 Shield cases, has settled 330 more, and in 13 years has never completed a trial.

Merhige has set Tuesday for a hearing on White's motion and on the Drabkin dismissal.