IN ALMOST every respect James Edward Sheffield is the model of a traditional, establishment, achiever. He graduated cum laude from law school, served his country in the Air Force and his community on the boards of the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Richmond Symphony, two hospitals and the usual bar associations.

Various organizations have named him Citizen of the Year, Businessman of the Month, Boss of the Year. He likes antiques, hunting and fishing and lives in a restored 18th-century plantation with a swimming pool and a couple of horses. One of his daughters goes to St. Catherine's, the most exclusive girls' school in Richmond.

When he walks into the Downtown Club, half a dozen secure denizens of Main Street look up from their businessman's lunches to greet him by name. "Hello, Judge," they say. "How are you today."

But he is not altogether one of them, not quite a complete member of the familiar network of comfortable conservatives who make up the Virginia establishment. And the main thing that sets him apart has also placed him in the middle of a historic and intricate confrontation between President Jimmy Carter, who has nominated him for a federal judgeship, and Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd Jr., who has not.

James Sheffield is black.

HE'S HARDLY the sort of person you wold expect to be the fulcrum of a major controversy. Soft-spoken, unflamboyant, cautious, there is little in his past that would have predicted his current situation. The fate of his nomination is still uncertain, but whatever happens, this particular confluence of events and history have combined to make him at least a footnote in future records.

When President Carter nominated him on April 9 of this year, almost three years after the process to find qualified judgeship candidates had begun, Carter officially challenged both a senator and his own system. It was the first time a president questioned a senator's candidates because he did not include any minorities.

Three years previously, Byrd, Acting on a handwritten letter he, the Senate's only Independent, had received along with all Democratic senators appointed a commission to find candidates for four new federal judgeships that were opening in the state. Five of the 18 members of the commission had contributed to Byrd's last campaign; 13 were well-established lawyers; two were close personal friends. The commission, to the surprise of almost no one, produced a list of 10 white males, saying there were just no qualified blacks or women in the entire state.

Sheffield is the only black circuit court judge in Virginia, and thus the highest-ranking black judge. The American Bar Association rated him "qualified" to be a federal judge. But Harry Byrd's commission did not interview him.

That Harry Byrd is an independent and an irritant to much of the Democratic party in Virginia undoubtedly made it somewhat easier for Carter to decide to take him on. But it is not known whether Carter would have challenged him, despite his campaign promises to elevate more minorities and women to judgeships, if strong Democrats and liberals in the state had not objected to Byrd's list.The alliances and muscle flexing that have gone on during this battle will probably have an influence on Virginia politics in the future, but it is too soon to read the tea leaves.

Sheer racism, some said about Byrd's list, another example that the ybyrd machine and the political philosophy it bequethed the state are still potent. These people -- black leaders, (comparatively) liberal North Virginia congressman Herbert E. Harris, and anti-estabishment groups like the A.C.L.U., began to organize and pressure the Carter administration. Nine months after Byrd released his list of 10 names, the protestors were assured in November 1978 the president would not nominate only white males. A year and five months later, Carter nominated Sheffield, having previously picked two other names from Byrd's list, and then a third.

Former attorney general Griffin had visited Byrd "at least a dozen times," the senator said, trying to get him to expand the list. "This administration doesn't like confrontation," explained one Virginia Democrat. "Bell is a Byrd-type guy, he could smell a populist 40 miles downwind. They decided 'why make Byrd mad?' I think they spent two years trying to find a black that Byrd could bend with, then they finally had to bite the bullet."

Byrd, meanwhile, was adhering to the "moral commitment" he feels he made to the commission he appointed.

"All I know is that I got a handwritten letter signed 'Jimmy.' I did what the president asked . . . I felt I had a moral commitment not to go outside that list. The White House has been very unfair to the members of the commission who worked so hard, and very unfair to those the commission deemed the best qualified, and to the people of Virginia," he said.

He has two friends he'd hoped would be on the commission's list, the senator continued., "If I couldn't expand the list to include them I don't see how I could go back and ask the commission to do it for someone else."

"Byrd has decided to follow his daddy and be the last bastion of massive resistance," said Oliver Hill, at 73 one of the godfathers of civil rights in Virginia. He may be overstating the case somewhat, but he gives an indication of the depth of feeling this case has aroused.

"It's regrettable from Jude Sheffield's standpoint," said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia's Republican senator. "He's irrevocably caught in this situation. It could be this matter will be resolved between the legislative and the executive and he will never have the occasion to stand, so to speak, and be judged by 100 senators on his qualifications because of a procedural dispute."

At 48, Jim Sheffield is slight, starting to gray, and reserved. His friends say his response to this three-year endurance test has been typically "stoic." He has a face that betrays little emotion demeanor that does not draw attention to himself and gives the impression of total self-control.

"He's driven by something," said an old friend and hunting companion, C. S. McCall Jr., a Richmond insurance agent. "He's the most motivated person I know. I've never seen anyone who puts in the hours he does. He feels a great need to succeed, to create more or less a pathway for other blacks in the South."

Sheffield did not want to be interviewed for fear of seeming to campaign for the job, but from earlier interviews and conversations the picture emerges of a man who is determined to keep going, to go through the nomination process and who hopes to be judged on his qualifications rather than his race.

He was born and raised in the resort town of Hot Springs, Ark., one of nine children and the son of a Pullman car railroad porter working the Hot Springs to Memphis run. His father brought home magazines that passengers left on the train, and it was through reading old issues of Life, The New Yorker, the New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post, among others, that he was introduced to the outside world.

". . . they gave me the urge to look out and see the world," he told Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Shelley Rolfe in 1974. "I had a glimpse of it that not many boys in Hot Springs had . . ."

He worked as a hotel waiter and bus boy, and spent his summers waiting tables in other resort towns. Joining a sister in Chicago, he started college at night, later graduating from the University of Illinois with a year at Texas College on a football scholarship.

He enrolled in law school at the University of Illinois because he liked political science, debating and history. Thinking he had done badly his first semester, because he was holding down a job at nights and weekends, he dropped out and enlisted in the Air Force, only to find out later he had passed every subject.

When he left the Air Force after four years, he stayed in Richmond, where his last assignment had been at Byrd Field. His first job was running the then-segregated Boy Scout program for black youths. He met his wife there while he was in the service, and they decided to make her home town their home. He worked until the next semester at Howard Law School began, and started what was to become several years of commuting between Washington and Richmond, often traveling by bus.

He also continued a pattern he had set earlier -- going to school full-time while working at a job as well. He'd work at one job until his class load got too heavy, quit and find another later. He was a waiter at the Cosmos Club and the Market Inn, clerked at a liquor store, and sorted mail during Christmas.

"He was very businesslike and studious," recalled Leonard Lambert, a Richmond lawyer in partnership with State Sen. Douglas L. Wilder who went to Howard Law School with Sheffield and remains his friend. "He had a sense of purpose the rest of us didn't have, perhaps because he was older, and married. We'd come in and he'd be studying. We'd go out to a bar or a movie or something and get back and he'd still be studying. Then when we got up in the morning there he'd be at 6 a.m., studying again."

He won a scholarship and a job as a teaching assistant at Howard after making straight A's his first semester, and even now continues to teach part-time at the University of Virginia Law School and at T. C. Williams Law school at the University of Richmond.

He worked as a law clerk for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights while in law school, and after graduating served a year as a trial attorney with the Justice Department. He began practicing law in Richmond in 1964, starting with a Wednesday even practice in an unused corner of an insurance office, and gradually building up a clientele that was 75 percent criminal work.

Meanwhile he was involved in numerous community activities, ranging from being on the finance committee of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church to the state, local and black bar associations.

"On Law Day he was always the guy who came by pushing the merits of law and how it could be a salvation to many of the problems that plagued black people," said Ray Boone, editor of both the Richmond and Baltimore Afro-American newspapers.

Eventually Sheffield had his offices in a building he bought and named the Sheffield building. It is in the section of Richmond known as Jackson Ward, not far from the modern federal high-rise where his office looks out over the old brick house, preserved in a sea of concrete, that was John Marshall's home.

Jackson Ward is a section of black-owned businesses and offices, like those of Lawyers Hills, Tucker and Marsh, and the N.A.A.C.P., the Afro-American and the oldest black-owned bank in the community. It's also the section where the only statue of a black in Richmond is located: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, well on the south side of Broad Street but walking distance from chic Monument Avenue where Stonewall Jackson rides in stone splendor and other heroes of the Confederacy are memorialized.

He was also investing in real estate, buying 10 apartment units in Richmond in partnership with a colleague, and a house now worth about $185,000, according to the financial disclosure statement he filed with the judiciary committee. He was also accumulating debts, now amounting to $313,638. His last year in private practice he earned $131,955, putting him in an income bracket comparable to two of the other three nominees. He sets his assests at $417,284.

His wife recalls that at one point when her children were younger she was resentful of the time Sheffield spent on outside activities. "I used to look at my neighbors and I'd see the daddies coming home and cooking on the barbecue or mowing the lawn, and our daddy was at the Big Brothers or the Boy Scouts or some meeting or other," Patricia Sheffeld said. "Finally I said to him, 'Jim, look at so-and-so, why can't you be more like him?' And he said to me, 'I can't live in a community I don't feel I'm giving something back to.' And I've never said anything about it since."

Now she is on a number of boards and committees herself. "If you can't beat them, join them," she laughed.

By 1974 Sheffield was part of an informal group pressuring to have at least one black named a circuit court judege. According to State Sen. Wilder and attorney Oliver Hill, when a Richmond judgeship became vacant in 1974, they called in the chips earned through having urged black voters to support the city's delegation to the General Assembly. Seven of the eight members of the delegation urged then-governor Milles E. Godwin to support Sheffield, even though he was the third choice of the Richmond Bar Association, and he did.

His appointment was viewed as a breakthrough, and Sheffield felt the responsibility keenly. As soneone who believes that change can and must come from within the system, he saw himself not only as a role model for young people, who, like himself, might never aspire to be a judge because he'd never seen a black judge, but as a test case for white people as well.

On March 22, 1978, Judge Sheffield delivered a letter of resignation to Gov. John D. Dalton, citing "family and business commitments." That same month he and his wife were listed as being delinquent in paying real estate taxes; they paid the $1,071 they owed the next day.

Sheffield withdrew his resignation the following day, but ever since there has been speculation and gossip about his financial situation, speculation that has been re-circulated recently in stories in the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch.

So far no one has turned up anything irregular about his finances. Even the rummors are vague. But, as Lambert said, they will probably come up during a confirmation hearing.

A source close to Sheffield said he resigned because he was angry and disappointed at not having not included in Byrd's list of 10 candidates, and frustrated that he had not even been interviewed. Citing "family and business commitments" seemed a graceful way to exit.

Sheffield did renegotiate some loans, the source said, and there were offers from various people to help him financially and to urge him to stay on the bench. After discovering that it seemed unlikely another black would take his place on the Circuit Court, he withdrew his resignation.

For the last three years Sheffield's qualifications have been examined exhaustively. The general concensus seems to be that he is hard-working rather than brilliant, thorough, occasionally slow in delivering an opinion, scrupulously fair to people appearing before him, and "judicial" in temperament. Few of the inevitably anonymous observers seem to feel that he is not qualified.

"You have firebrands who are lightning rods and stormy petrels, and you have those who operate in quiet persuasive manners," said state Sen. Wilder. "He is not the loudmouth person. He has a strong, even temperament and a reputation for being decent. His weakness, if he has one, is that he has not had federal experience."

Sheffield has been reversed seven times in 5 1/2 years. Philosophically, he is uncomfortable with the idea of judges making law, but he believes the laws must be pliable in order to survive.

In Virginia, the law has been very pliable when it comes to race. Although Virginians usually point out that there has been little violence between the races since Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, the state's political history has been studded with successful efforts to disenfranchise blacks and keep them well under control.

From the 1902 constitution, which was revised to prevent blacks (poor whites were sacrificed to obtain the goal) from voting through complicated literacy tests and poll taxes, to the fiscal "pay as you go" austerity made famous by Harry F. Byrd Sr., legal measures were used to keep the white establishment invulnerable.

"That . . . the state became an economic and cultural backwater can be traced in significant measure to the commonwealth's most cherished policy," wrote Richard Kulger in "Simple Justice": "maintaining the poor in the style to which they had become accustomed by, among other things, providing them with 1) as few social services as possible -- especially free compulsory education -- and 2) a baffling array of devices to remove all political power from their unwashed hands."

Blacks make up about 18.5 percent of Virginia's million people, making it one of the 15 states in the country with large black populations. Until the early 1970s, more blacks left the state than moved into it, a trend that started after the Civil War. There were few jobs or educational opportunities for them, other than service or blue collar jobs, and housing and schooling was correspondingly poor.

But the Virginia way of keeping control was somehow more benign than in other states in the deep South, where demogogues produced white supremacist rallying cries a regular intervals. Rarely did Virginia leaders engage openly in tacky race-baiting; rather they perfected a paternalism that effectively blurred anger which might have in turn stimulated rebellion. People were "nice" to each other. The plantation mentality reigned.

"Nobody said 'get out of here, nigger,' so you didn't feel that flush of anger," said Jack Gravely, head of the state's N.A.A.C.P.

The legacy is a black leadership that works within the system, an electorate that has rarely been unified as a "black vote" and change that has come very slowly.

"I think that change that comes slowly is effective change, it's here to stay," said Henry Marsh, Oliver Hill's law partner and the mayor of Richmond, in an interview a few years ago.

One change that came more quickly than the senior Byrd and his colleagues envisioned was the decline of massive resistance, the policy they came up with to avoid integrating public schools. The Byrd organization thought it would keep them in power for 25 years; according to reports at the time. But despite the array of laws the legislature enacted, and the spirit of places like Prince Edward County which closed its schools for four years, integration began -- very slowly -- in 1958.

Sen. Harry Byrd Sr.'s proclamation that "racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South," was defeated by the law of the land, although in Virginia "with all deliberate speed," was definitely more deliberate than speedy. White flight to suburbs and private schools was immense. Today there are black mayors in half a dozen cities, four blacks in the House of Delegates and one (Wilder) in the state senate. Although to many "Virginia Conservative" means racist, others feel it is more a question of social bias, cultural exclusion or a tendency to keep things the way they are, and were. Critics like to point out as an example that Virginia has yet to ratify such U.S. Constitutional Amendments as those authorizing direct election of senators and the income tax, recalling that as recently as 1977 there were emotional arguments against such radical acts on the floor of the state senate.

There is no Byrd machine or organization anymore. The men who once held the power are now old, if not going, and their successors no longer dictate elections or appointments as they once did.

What remains is a philosophical affinity group, a strong sense of The Way We Do Things in Virginia, and a perhaps overinflated belief in the power of Sen. Byrd by those who oppose him.

Judge Sheffield's nomination is viewed by them as a blow against the Byrd mystique. "This is history-making in that it would mark the end of an era of Byrd-thinking in Virginia," said State Sen. Wilder, one of the leading black politicians in the state. "It would show that one senator cannot wave his finger and say nay."

After President Carter nominated Sheffield on April 9, Sen. Byrd "returned a negative blue slip," which in congressional parlance means he officially opposes the nomination.

Just how hard he will fight it, however, remains an open question. He does not oppose a hearing -- the first hurdle that must be overcome before the judiciary committee votes whether or not to confirm him.

"I'll speak on behalf of those the commission nominated," Byrd said, referring to Richmond lawyer Richard L. Williams, State Sen. J. Harry Michael, an Abingdon lawyer, and Democrative party activist James P. Jones. "I'm going to do all I can to protect the comission I appointed at the president's request." He would not elaborate.

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy took over the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, he jettisoned the system whereby a senator's opposition could kill a judgeship nomination. The judiciary Committee conducts its own investigation of each nominee before asking for a hearing; in Sheffield's case the investigation has not been completed.

Some Republicans wouldn't mind delaying everthing until after the presidential election in the hopes that Ronald Reagan will win. However, Virginia's other senator, Republican John W. Warner, urged Kennedy to hold a hearing as promptly as possible, and said he knows of no Republican moves to stop it.

Meanwhile, of course, both Carter and Kennedy have had other matters to concentrate on, like running for president and dealing with foreign crisis. The blame for the length of time it has taken to get to the nominations at this point cannot be placed on any one person or group, but can be shared by all. Meanwhile, Congress will be in and out of session until the election, adding yet another practical problem to setting a hearing.

These and other wisps of political smoke cloud any predictions of what may happen. The only thing that seems clear is that of all the players in this drama, James E. Sheffield has the most to lose. The others for the most part, have already won.

Harry Byrd can't lose -- he complied with the president's request to set up a commission and his steadfast refusal to change their list has reaffirmed his already firm support among conservatives. He doesn't have much support among blacks anyway, and the establishment doesn't care whether or not a black is appointed.

President Carter can't lose -- after all, he has nominated the first black for a federal judgeship in Virginia, and bucked a senator to do so. If Sheffield is not confirmed, or withdraws, Carter can at least say he tried. And Carter has nominated a record number of minorities for judgeships, aided by the fact that he's had 154 new openings to fill.

Rep. Harris can't lose -- he is the only Virginia politician in Congress who has worked actively for Sheffield, and is generally credited with the success of the effort so far. If he should decide to run for a higher office -- which he hasn't said he has -- he probably has not been hurt by the exposure.

Of course, Williams, Michael and Jones could lose, if their nominations get caught in the political whirlpool. But they have not been examined publicly to the extent Sheffield has, nor have their qualifications been questioned by sub rosa intimations of financial impropriety.

Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, the only Democrat in a statwide office and a man who hopes to run for governor, could lose because he initially backed Byrd's list. But he has tried to recoup his standing with the black community by running interference with the White House.

Sheffield's supporters will feel they have lost if he is not confirmed, but they know there will be another time, and that they have never gotten this far before.

"The nomination has been made," said Harris. The question is: Should he be confirmed? All this talk about process is irrelevant. You have to deal with this in historic rather than procedural terms. We have for the first time nominated a black for a federal judgeship in Virginia."

"I do believe," said Sheffield's friend Lambert. "None of this would be happening if the man wasn't black."