The expected nomination of Justice Department lawyer J. Harvie Wilkinson III to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was criticized yesterday from an unlikely quarter -- the editorial pages of the Norfolk newspaper he once ran.

The Virginian-Pilot questioned in its lead editorial whether Wilkinson, 38, who was the paper's editorial editor from 1978 to 1981, had the necessary courtroom experience to serve on the federal bench.

It was the same objection the paper had raised about Kenneth Starr, a 36-year-old Californian and top aide to Attorney General William French Smith, who was reported last spring to be a leading candidate for the same seat. Starr has since been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said Thursday the White House is expected to name Wilkinson to the appeals court in Richmond.

"You look at Starr and you look at Wilkinson, and you see they are almost carbon copies," said Pilot editor William Wood yesterday. "Starr clerked for Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger, Wilkinson clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. They are closely parallel -- they are both conservative, very bright, young and neither has spent a lot of time in a courtroom.

"If we had come out and endorsed Jay, then we would have been hypocritical because his nomination raises the same questions as Starr," said Wood. "So we decided to play it straight down the middle."

In the editorial, "Wilkinson for Judge?" the paper recalled that it had questioned the "rush" to appoint Starr, "obviously . . . a bright young man in a hurry . . . . The same question applies to Mr. Wilkinson."