RICHMOND, JAN. 5 -- A federal appeals court panel, in a decision that could affect inmates in a number of states who are awaiting execution, today reversed a ruling that required Virginia to appoint lawyers to assist death row prisoners who appeal convictions and sentences.

In a 2-to-1 ruling that was promptly hailed by law enforcement officials and sharply criticized by attorneys for several inmates, the panel took the unusual step of chiding U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., who had ordered Virginia in 1986 to correct what he called the "patchwork system" of legal assistance for death row prisoners.

"The District Court clearly erred . . . and abused its discretion in fashioning such an extreme remedy" of expanding the state's program of legal assistance for condemned prisoners, the majority wrote. "The District Court has, under the guise of meaningful access, established a right of counsel where none is required by the Constitution."

Merhige's ruling stemmed from a suit filed by death row inmate Joseph M. Giarratano, who was convicted and sentenced in 1979 for murdering a woman and raping and murdering her 15-year-old daughter. Giarratano has been on death row since his conviction and sentence were upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1980. He is one of nearly 40 inmates on death row in Virginia.

Merhige had ruled that the law libraries and appointed attorneys provided by the state were not sufficient to guarantee Virginia's death row inmates the "meaningful access" to the courts they were entitled to under the Constitution. The judge ordered the state to appoint lawyers to individual inmates where necessary, rather than have attorneys represent a number of prisoners simultaneously.

In today's majority ruling, Judges William W. Wilkins Jr. and G. Ross Anderson Jr. said in essence that Mehrige had gone too far, imposing on the state "a duty that is more attuned to personal notions of fairness than to constitutional requirements."

Virginia was already fulfilling its obligation under a key Supreme Court ruling, and there was "no factual or legal justification for requiring a higher standard of access for death row inmates," the majority said.

Bert L. Rohrer, a spokesman for state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who had appealed Merhige's ruling to the federal court, said she was "pleased" by the ruling and regarded the case as an "important" one with national implications.

Gerald T. Zerkin, a Richmond lawyer, also said the ruling could affect other states, especially those in the South with relatively high numbers of condemned prisoners. But Zerkin added that today's decision could reverse the progress made in the year since the lower court ruling. "Virginia is clearly the worst state in the 4th Circuit in terms of providing representation to persons on death row; it doesn't do it," said Zerkin, who said he plans to appeal the ruling.

Judge Kenneth K. Hall, writing in dissent, said the majority had relied too heavily on the Giarratano case for its picture of Virginia's death row.

Another death row prisoner came within two weeks of scheduled execution before an appeal lawyer was provided for him, Hall said.