U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner today flatly rejected Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Henry E. Howell's charge that the state's voter registration laws discriminate against working people.

Saying he was happier following the precedent of other courts than setting precedents himself. Warriner said he could find no constitutional basis to support Howell's request for a court order declaring the current laws unconstitutional.

Howell, a self-styled populist who brought the suit on behalf of two unregistered Virginians and himself, appeared surprised at the judge's ruling and said he will appeal the case to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "I had thought I did pretty good," Howell told the judge as Warriner started to rule against him.

"If you'd rather be heard upstairs than downstairs, then that's your right," the judge replied, referring to the appeals court, which sits two floors above him in the Richmond federal courthouse. The judge then denied all of Howell's pending motions, leaving him with the difficult task of preparing an appeal of his case in the 11 days before the state's May 14 registration deadline.

Howell, a former lieutenant governor, later maintained he would meet the appeal's deadline and would, if necessary, continue to fight the case after the June 14 primary in which he faces former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller.

The outcome of the case, Howell said, will not affect his chances of beating Miller, but he conceded it will take him away from the campaign at a crucial time in the race. "There are enough registered voters now for me to win the primary," Howell said. He added he was fighting the case because of "the principle of the thing," not any political advantage.

Howell, who built much of his political following by successfully challenging state officials in court on a range of issues, had asked Warriner to declare unconstitutional what Howell branded as "this patchwork" of registration regulations. Under the Virginia rules, some thinly populated rural localities are allowed to open their registration books as little as one day a week, while urban localities must provide registration five days a week.

Howell charged that the rules thus discriminate against rural Virginians and also discriminate against blue collar and service industry workers because they provide for the books to be open during "normal" business hours, a practice that makes it impossible for some workers to register.

Warriner, a former Republican Party official from Southside Virginia, found none of Howell's arguments compelling. After a hearing that lasted almost 90 minutes, he told Howell he would not grant him a temporary restraining order against the state.

There was no dispute today about the wide range of times and places at which Virginia's 130 localities offer voter registration. But State Attorney General Anthony F. Troy argued that the disparities were neither improper nor unconstitutional.

"The commonwealth has a compelling interest to do only that (which) is reasonable - not unreasonable," Warriner agreed. "To require the same registration in Westmoreland County which has, I believe, about 3,000 residents as you would require in Fairfax County, which has about half-a-million residents, would be unreasonable," the judge said. "Similar access" to registration "is what is required - not the same number of days and the same number of hours of registration," he said.

The judge also disputed the claim Howell brought on behalf of a Newport News shipyard worker that he could not find time to register in Isle of Wight County because the county maintains registration only when he is at work. Looking at the man's address, Warriner said he "had to" ride by the county courthouse on his way home from the shipyard in time to register. The judge thus dismissed the man's claim.