The Howard County Human Rights Commission is asking a state agency to lodge an employment discrimination complaint against Circuit Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey, the commission's chairman said yesterday.

Rudolph C. Chapple, the chairman, said Pumphrey's 33-member staff includes no minorities and that a "closed" hiring process had led the commission to suspect there might be "a pattern and practice of discrimination" in the clerk's office.

Chapple said that Howard's commission planned to ask the state Commission on Human Relations to file a complaint against Pumphrey.

Pumphrey, a 63-year-old Democrat, was elected to his third term as court clerk in a landslide election in November. Yesterday, he declined to comment on the allegations because he had not been formally notified of the commission's plans.

An employe in Pumphrey's office said yesterday that one reason for the commission's findings might be that the office has few vacancies and slow turnover.

The commission began investigating Pumphrey's office in the spring after Chapple, during a visit to the court, noticed a "conspicuous" lack of minority employes, he said. Pumphrey was asked to provide information about his staffing patterns and hiring practices.

Last week, Pumphrey wrote in a letter to the commission that his staff consists of 10 white men and 23 white women. He also indicated that he does not advertise job openings, but fills employment vacancies from a backlog of applications.

Howard County's population is 14 percent black.

The failure to advertise could violate federal equal employment opportunity laws, Chapple said.

"Even if no qualified blacks had applied in the past, based on the no-advertisement policy they would be prevented from applying in the future," Chapple said.

Chapple said he did not know whether Pumphrey had hired any minority group members in the past.

Maryland's Chief Deputy Comptroller Basil Wisner said yesterday that because court clerks are elected, their employes do not fall under the state's merit system.

He added, however, that the clerks' independence does not allow them to practice discrimination.

"The state of Maryland is an affirmative action employer and all clerks of court have to exercise affirmative action," Wisner said.

In Maryland, the ultimate administrative authority over circuit court clerks lies with the court's judges.

Howard Circuit Court Administrative Judge Guy J. Cicone said yesterday that although he was personally concerned about the lack of blacks and other minorities in Pumphrey's office, he and the three other judges had never required the clerk to integrate the office.

"I've inquired a couple of times: 'Why don't you have any dark-skinned people around here?' " Cicone said. "He says, 'I can't get anyone to apply and the ones who do apply aren't qualified.' "