RICHMOND, JAN. 15 -- Richmond lawyer Thomas F. Coates III avoided a possible contempt citation today when he apologized at a hearing to Virginia Supreme Court Justice John Charles Thomas for cursing the judge during a chance encounter at a Christmas party here last month.

"I am very deeply regretful, I am very sorry," Coates said of the language he used in criticizing a decision Thomas and three other justices made earlier last year in a case involving one of Coates' clients.

Justice Thomas, accompanied by his lawyer, Deputy Attorney General Stephen D. Rosenthal, sat at the plaintiff's table in the packed ceremonial courtroom on the Supreme Court.

After the six other justices convened briefly in private, Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico announced that Coates' apology had been accepted. Coates also volunteered not to practice before the court for 60 days.

Rosenthal said "everybody thought this was the right way to handle this under the circumstances."

Coates, citing "good sense and good taste," refused to comment.

Two days after their Dec. 19 meeting, Justice Thomas filed papers accusing Coates of contempt for violating a Virginia law that makes it a crime to address a judge in "vile, contemptuous or insulting language" concerning matters before his court.

Rosenthal said he believes it was the first time that law had been invoked against a lawyer.

Coates admitted using profane language in talking to the judge, but contended that the words were used in a jocular manner.

Thomas, who was named to the high court in 1982, said in an affidavit he did not know Coates. "We have never socialized, visited with each other, had a drink together, told jokes together or engaged in any other conduct that could suggest to him that he could speak to me as he did," he said.

Other than recognizing Coates' name from the pleading, Thomas said, "he was a perfect stranger to me."

So was Coates' date, a lawyer who was the only other witness to the exchange, Thomas said. "Thus I had no connection with her which would permit Mr. Coates to believe that he could address me as he did in her presence," the judge said.

Thomas said he was attending a party at the Omni Hotel here, when Coates, who had been attending a different party, came up to him and said, "Justice Thomas, Justice Thomas, my name is Thomas Coates," and introduced his date.

"I am certain I made some remark of common courtesy," the judge said, "but I did not engage in a conversation" with the couple.