Maryland's two Democratic senators yesterday strongly protested President Bush's choice of Claude A. Allen of Virginia to fill a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, saying the seat rightfully belongs to their state.

With equal vehemence, Virginia's two Republican senators supported Allen, saying he was eminently qualified and should not be punished because of a spat between two states and their senators.

"We think the White House has very badly treated our state," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) replied that Maryland lost the fight and that the Senate should be concerned only with the nominee's qualifications.

The cross-Potomac quarrel, coming on top of controversy over Allen's record, expands the Senate's partisan battle over some of Bush's most contentious judicial nominations.

Behind the dispute is a suspicion among Democrats that Bush turned to Virginia and its two GOP senators to avoid having to deal with the Maryland Democrats, who had objected to Bush's first choice for the seat. The administration contends that the choice of a Virginian is justified on grounds of population and caseload.

By shifting the seat to Virginia, Bush made a "gross departure from practice" that normally guides presidents in apportioning seats on multi-state circuit courts, Sarbanes told the Senate Judiciary Committee at the start of a hearing on Allen's nomination. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called on Bush to withdraw the nomination, and Sarbanes said he plans to oppose the nomination "with all the strength I can muster."

Sarbanes said later that he will filibuster the nomination if it comes to the Senate floor. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, a high hurdle for the 51-member GOP majority in the 100-member chamber. Democrats have successfully filibustered three nominees this year and are considering trying to block a few others.

Several Republicans on the committee joined Warner and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) in defending the nominee, who is African American and a prominent conservative, and Bush's right to shift seats on an appeals court between states.

Claude Allen, now the No. 2 official at the Department of Health and Human Services, is an "excellent nominee" who will "honorably and fairly" adjudicate cases that come before the court, said Sen. Allen.

Under questioning from Democrats yesterday, Claude Allen said he did not intend to insult homosexuals when as a campaign press aide to then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) he referred to "queers." He also said he was "deeply conflicted" about a Helms filibuster against creation of a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying King was "a hero for me and my family."

The seat that Allen would fill on the 15-member, Richmond-based court had been held by Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., a Baltimore jurist who died in 2000, leaving Maryland with two seats on the court.

In a July 17 letter to Sarbanes and Mikulski, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales said Maryland is entitled to two or three seats, based on population and caseload. By the same standards, Virginia, which has three judges (not counting an impending vacancy that Bush has proposed to fill with another Virginian), is entitled to one or two additional seats, Gonzales said.

In addition to Virginia and Maryland, the circuit includes North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Claude A. Allen's nomination could face a filibuster.