Six Republican members of the Virginia Congressional Delegation have signed a letter that appears to be designed to oppose and discourage the rumored nomination of an aide to Attorney General William French Smith to a vacant judgeship on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rather than object by name to Kenneth W. Starr, the senior Justice aide who is the candidate reportedly favored for the post by Smith, the letter to Smith is couched as an expression of support for the three U.S. District Court judges nominated for the vacancy by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

A spokesman for Rep. Stan Parris, a Northern Virginia Republican who signed the letter, called it a "shot across the bow," and a "warning to the Justice Department with hopes the White House will get the message."

The spokesman said he believed the Justice Department has decided the nomination should go to Starr, who is legal counsel to the attorney general, a former Supreme Court law clerk and a veteran of Smith's own California law firm.

He said Virginians were "somewhat confused" by the expected nomination of a 36-year-old Californian to fill one of the most prestigious judicial posts in a state that respects tradition and experience and has many "excellently qualified" and "eminently capable" jurists.

While the House of Representatives does not pass on nominees to the federal bench, the spokesman said Parris hoped the letter "is an indication to the White House we don't intend to sit still in the Senate for an affront of this nature."

The letter, signed by Sen. Paul Trible (R-Va.) and all Virginia Republican House members except Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia, asserts the importance to a court of appeals nominee of both extensive practice before the bar and experience as a judge in the lower federal courts.

The candidates proposed by Warner are District Court Judges Albert V. Bryan Jr., J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. and Glen M. Williams.

An aide to Warner said, "We're delighted that the congressional delegation is supporting Sen. Warner's recommendations."

An aide to Wolf, the only Republican House member not to sign, said he thought it would be inappropriate because Starr is a constituent, friend and past supporter.

The White House declined to comment last night on the nomination process. A Justice spokesman said he did not know if the letter, dated March 21, had been received, but said Starr is "certainly considered in the running" for the nomination.

By tradition, a senator can block a District Court appointment in his state, and congressional spokesmen said tradition generally calls for replacing an appeals court judge by another from the same state. However, the Justice spokesman said appeals court judges have jurisdiction in several states. The 4th Circuit jurisdiction includes Maryland, North and South Carolina and West Virginia in addition to Virginia.

Starr declined to comment last night.