THE CHARGES that have been made against Virginia Judge James E. Sheffield are so serious that the Senate Judiciry Committee has an obligation to resume the hearing on his nomination to the federal bench as quickly as possible. Judge Sheffield claims the allegations -- said to be contained in Internal Revenue Service documents -- are "totally inaccurate." He wants an opportunity to set the record straight. He should not have to wait, as was suggested by the committee's staff Tuesday, until October for that change to clear his name -- and his nomination.

Judge Sheffield was guilty, according to the information leaked to the press, of unethically or illegally mishandling money left in his care by clients while he was practicing law. The IRS came across that misconduct, it is said, while investigating his income tax returns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Judge Sheffield admits there was such an investigation but says lawyers for the Department of Justice questioned him about it in detail earlier this year and were satisfied with his explanation.

We do not know whether there is any substance to the charges. If they are true and Judge Sheffield did use the money of clients for his own purposes, he should not be a state judge, let alone be confirmed by the Senate to a federal judgeship. But if these charges are false, they should not be used as a pretext for futher delaying Senate action on his and three other pending judicial nominations from Virginia.

But there is more to it than simple justice for Judge Sheffield. If the charges are false, Judge Sheffield deserves better support from the Carter administration than he is now getting.If they are true, and the administration knew that, the White House did him and other Virginians a disservice by sending his name to the Senate. If they are true and the administration did not know that Department of Justice was negligent in investigating his background.

It took some courage on Judge Sheffield's part to let his nomination go forward in the face of Sen. Harry Byrd's opposition to it. That, alone, made the chances for confirmation slim. But if Judge Sheffield can explode these allegations, as he says he can, he deserves to be confirmed quickly. After all, the only outside group to evaluate prospective judges -- that to be a federal judge (before these allegations arose) somewhat higher than those of one of the nominees backed strongly by Sen. Byrd.