FROM START to still-uncertain finish, a confrontation between President Carter and Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. over federal judgeships in Virginia has been a classic example of how not to handle such important matters. In the middle of the mess is Richmond Circuit Judge James E. Sheffield, whose nomination to the federal bench has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. It all began years ago, when Mr. Carter made the mistake of soliciting the assistance of Independent Sen. Byrd.

The president threatened to leave four new judicial seats vacant unless the senator agreed to recommend blacks and women for judgeships. Sen. Byrd did follow Mr. Carter's suggestion that a broad-based screening committee come up with a list of candidates -- but when the senator's hand-picked committee recommended 10 white males, Mr. Carter nominated three of them and added his own choice of Judge Sheffield, who is black. Since then, Sen. Byrd has invoked the tradition of "senatorial courtesy" to block the nomination; supporters of Judge Sheffield have been charging racism; and opponents have been raising questions about alleged past tax problems that have been the subject of government investations -- but that never resulted in any charges.

Understandably, Judge Sheffield, whom the American Bar Association has rated "qualified" to be a federal judge, has requested a suspension of confirmation hearings until he has an opportunity to review whatever files on his finances have been made available to the Senate committee. But in the meantime, and whenever the nomination comes to a vote, the decision should not be based on "senatorial courtesy," nor on the race of the nominee. The question is whether Judge Sheffield is qualified to serve -- and so far there has been no public evidence that he is not.