The Supreme Court yesterday upheld an appellate court ruling denying Virginia prisoners seeking parole the constitutional due process rights to a lawyer and to cross-examine witnesses as well as access to their prison records.

The justices voted 6 to 3 to refuse to review a suit brought by four prisoners who challenged the constitutionality of Virginia's prisoner parole system. Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Byrong E. White voted to review the case.

The high court in previous decisions generally has expanded the rights of prisoners, granting them better medical care, more legal assistance and more privacy in their mail according to Alvin Bronstein, executive director of the National Prison Project for the ACLU.

Bronstein said yesterday's action was consistent with the court's only previous ruling on due process rights of persons who already are imprisoned.

In that case, the court held that a prisoner had due process rights once he was freed, but not while he was in prison, Bronstein said. "So long as you are in prison you have no liberty interest," Bronstein said the court has ruled.

The court's decision yesterday "does, however, fly in the face of every court of appeals except" the 4th and 5th circuits, Bronstein said. Two other circuits have not decided the issue, Bronstein said. Yesterday's Supreme Court decision affects inmates only in Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia.

Because the justices merely refused to review the case and did affirm the lower court's ruling, all other appeals court decisions remain in effect, Bronstein said.

In the Virginia case, the 4th circuit said that prisoners do not have constitutional due process rights but the parole board must give the prisoners a reason for its decision.

In the class action suit filed by four prisoners on behalf of all the state's prisoners, the inmates alleged that the parole board denied their constitutional due process rights. All four of the prisoners had been denied parole, according to Stephen A. Saltzburg, a University of Virginia law professor who handled the case.

Judge James Turk subsequently ordered the state to allow prisoners to see their files and information the board was considering in its decision. He also directed the parole board to establish guidelines so that prisoners would know what criteria would be used for determining parole, Saltzburg said. Turk ruled that the prisoners could present evidence and witnesses in their behalf and must be given a reason for the board's decision, Saltzburg said.

The prisoners appealed the decision because they wanted the right to cross-examine adverse witnesses and have a lawyer present during the hearings. The state also appealed the decision.

A three-judge panel last September substantially upheld Turk's ruling, but the entire Fourth Circuit last January reversed the decision and left standing only the order that the board must give prisoners a reason for their parole action. The prisoners the appeled to the Supreme Court.

State Attorney General J. Marshall Colemn said the state objected to granting due process rights to prisoners because it would bog down the parole system and that it is not a right guaranteed by the constitution.

The Virginia parole system, which according to Coleman hears more than 5,000 parole requests a year, already allows prisoners to have witnesses, present evidence and gives the reasons for the board's rulings. The parole board may rescind those procedures if it wishes, "but that is unlikely," Coleman said.

Ont of the major issues Coleman pushed in his election campaign last year was the gradual elimination of parole boards, an idea that has been debated throughout the country.

"The whole matter raises the question of the parole function, the usefulness of it," Coleman said. "If it's going to work you can't make it so burdensome it's a new adversarial proceeding.