The board of governors of the Maryland State Bar Association has endorsed a bill to create a southern division of the U.S. District Court for Maryland, providing a major boost to a measure that is expected to travel a difficult path in Congress.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), would create two additional judgeships to hear cases in courtrooms in Prince George's County or Montgomery County to serve the fast-growing suburban Washington areas.

But federal judges sitting in Baltimore are unanimously opposed to the idea, arguing that it would be too costly and administratively cumbersome. That opposition will make it difficult for proponents to win congressional approval of the bill next year, many agree.

"If money were no object and the opposition of the court was not a factor, there would be a compelling argument for it," Roger Titus, the president-elect of the state bar, said this week. "But at this point I wouldn't want to make a prediction."

Hoyer said he was encouraged by the growing support for the bill, but agreed that, "The question is whether or not the judges gin up enough opposition to defeat it."

At a meeting Nov. 17, the 40-member board of governors overwhelmingly endorsed the recommendation of a special task force on Maryland's federal court system to create a southern division outpost for the federal court.

The vote reversed the governing board's earlier position, taken in February 1983, to oppose any plan to divide Maryland's lone federal district or to create a second district.

"In large measure the overwhelming support of the board reflects respect for the work of the task force," Titus said.

The task force, which issued its final report in June 1986, was selected under the aegis of former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) and officials of the state bar.

Maryland, with eight full-time federal judges and five part-time senior judges, is the only state within the federal judiciary's 4th Circuit without multiple districts or divisions.

Hoyer and other proponents of a southern division say that the suburban areas generate a large percentage of the federal caseload in Maryland and that it is unfair to expect area residents and lawyers to make the trek to Baltimore. By 1990, those suburban areas will contain about 35 percent of the state's populaton, according to some projections.

"There shouldn't be any reason for the judges to be against it," said Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), whose district covers most of Montgomery County. "No judges {sitting in Baltimore} will be moved. They don't have to worry about being shipped back and forth."

However, Chief U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II indicated this week that he and the other judges would remain united in opposing the proposal.

"Our basic feeling is it comes at the wrong time, what with {federal} budget cuts everywhere," Harvey said. "We were hit very badly by Gramm-Rudman {deficit reduction legislation} last year and still haven't recovered."

Harvey and other judges also contend that Maryland is too small to require a second judicial division -- although neighboring West Virginia has two divisions -- and that the trip for lawyers, litigants and jurors between suburban Washington and Baltimore is not unreasonable.

"Administratively, it's easier to run a court from a centralized location," he said. "Collegiality is important, and we have luncheon meetings every Wednesday where we get a tremendous amount of administrative work done. It wouldmake it difficult if those judges would have to come up" from suburban Washington.

Morella described that argument as "poppycock," adding that the bill would "do nothing to diminish collegiality" among the judges.

"If anything, the bill will bring the state together," she said. ". . . Their arguments are specious. I don't think they have substance."

Within the legal profession, the strongest opposition to the plan has come from lawyers in the Baltimore area, Carroll County and Frederick County, who have easy access to the federal courts.

Peter Axelrad, a Baltimore lawyer and a leading opponent of the bill, said this week that the state bar's board of governors was wrong to have endorsed the southern division proposal, in light of a June 1983 bar association membership vote in Ocean City that narrowly rejected the concept.

"We have a marvelous, nonpartisan court," said Axelrad, a member of the board of governors. "We have a court that works. We have an adage here that if it doesn't need fixing, don't fix it."

Hoyer's bill was cosponsored by four other House members from Maryland -- Reps. Roy Dyson (D), Helen Delich Bentley (R), Beverly Byron (D) and Morella.

The two senators from Maryland, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Democrats, have said through spokesmen that they would support the bill if it is approved by the House.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), a member of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and the administration of justice, has remained neutral, but his support will be needed to get the bill out of committee.

"I committed to Steny that I would stay neutral until everyone has been heard," said Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "Then, I'll exercise my voice, based on the consensus of Maryland, and not just the district I represent."

The 4th Circuit Judicial Council will hold a hearing on the proposal Monday in Richmond.