The law firm launched just three years ago by Joseph A. Califano -- once the half-million dollar man for his much-publicized cut of the pie at Williams & Connolly -- is soon to be dissolved.

Partners at 13-lawyer Califano, Ross & Heineman are not talking, but the word is that the dissolution came about because Califano's partners wanted rapid growth and Califano, former HEW secretary and the firm's principal rainmaker, opposed expansion.

The other two name partners, Stanford G. Ross, former Social Security commissioner when Califano was at HEW, and Ben W. Heineman, who worked for Califano at HEW, decided to move on.

Ross, a tax specialist, is taking two associates to Arnold & Porter.

Heineman is going to the Washington branch of Chicago's Sidley & Austin.

The firm's two other partners, Peter Hamilton and Richard Cotton, have no set plans.

Hamilton is looking and Cotton apparently is going to stay with Califano for a while.

Califano, who has spent the last four months as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee, which is trying to untangle what's left of the allegations of a Capitol Hill sex and drug scandal, is reported to be negotiating with one or more New York firms with D.C. branches.

Sources say the split, which had been building for some time, is basically amicable, and that the firm was doing well financially.

They say the break-up, expected soon, was over "philosophical differences" on growth versus no-growth.

In the legal world, that difference often translates into the difference between big bucks and even bigger bucks.

The National Association of Women Judges has asked President Reagan to appoint at least one woman to the District of Columbia Superior Court bench.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who heads the organization, said in a letter that Reagan's appointment of a woman would be "a public affirmation of your continuing commitment to the appointment of a qualified and balanced judiciary."

Kessler pointed out that Reagan has had 10 appointments to the Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals -- but none have been women.

There are two openings on the D.C. Superior Court bench, and three of the six people recommended to Reagan by the judicial nominating commission were women.

The White House expects to announce the nominees soon.

Speaking of nominations, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is finally naming a replacement on the city's judicial nominating commission for Charles T. Duncan, a Walter E. Washington appointee whose term has long since expired.

He has continued to serve because Barry has not named a replacement.

Barry's pick, expected to be announced today, is Howard Law School Dean Wiley A. Branton.

An item in last week's column said D.C. lawyer William A. Borders Jr. declined to step down from the city's judicial nominating commission after his arrest for bribery, but did so after his conviction.

Commission Chairman Fred B. Abramson notes that the White House tried to unseat Borders even before his legal problems began, but was stopped from doing so by a federal court judge.

Faces reddened, knuckles whitened and things just got generally testy recently in the courtroom of Alexandria's General District Judge Robert S. Colby.

Before long, a young attorney faced a contempt of court threat for sticking to his guns.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Carter routinely brought a batch of driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases before the judge. Colby, annoyed with the cases, which he says clutter his docket, pressed Carter to rule out beforehand the possibility of jail sentences for the 25 defendants so that lawyers need not be appointed.

Colby, widely regarded as a fiscal conservative, opposes using taxpayers' money to hire attorneys in DWI cases when the vast majority of those convicted never are given jail time in his court.

Colby reasons that if the defendant doesn't face jail time, there is no need under Virginia law to appoint a lawyer.

So why not ask the prosecutors to say ahead of time that they would not ask for jail sentences?

Carter refused to go along and, according to witnesses, Colby shouted at Carter and threatened him with contempt.

After lunchtime Colby, in gentler tones, said that he had been having an exceptionally bad day and let Carter off the hook.

The cases were continued.

In a move to cope with the D.C. Superior Court's growing backlog of criminal cases, three hearing commissioners began handling arraignments, preliminary hearings and traffic cases last week.

The addition of the three commissioners frees at least two judges to handle felony cases, according to Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I, who proposed the change and hailed it last week as a "creative and effective way to help control our caseload."

The commissioners, who will be paid $48,169, are empowered, with the consent of both parties, to take guilty pleas and hear nonjury matters.