Federal workers bringing discrimination suits against the government are entitled to paid leave to prepare their cases, a federal judge here has ruled, saying an employe should not be forced to choose "between his livelihood and his lawsuit."

Attorneys said the June 18 decision, the first of its kind, could benefit thousands of government workers who claim they have been discriminated against.

The opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Richey ordered that a Commerce Department worker be compensated fully for time spent helping his lawyers prove that he was passed over for promotion because of racial bias.

"A plaintiff like this one, who depends upon his salary and who may face substantial hardship if forced to use annual leave when he must be preparing for litigation, may well face a choice between his livelihood and his lawsuit," Richey wrote.

Requiring workers to make such a choice "would be to ignore the broad mandate" of federal civil rights laws, which were designed to give victims of discrimination relief "unencumbered by unnecessary difficulties and obstacles," he said.

The decision is only binding within the district court's jurisdiction, but it could become a guidepost for similar cases, observers said.

Federal workers were already entitled to paid administrative leave for time spent testifying in court and to full, retroactive pay for time devoted to successful lawsuits. Also, workers have been allowed paid leave to pursue bias complaints through bureaucratic channels.

Richey's ruling expands those activities to include time spent consulting attorneys, taking depositions and otherwise preparing for trial. Employes may resort to litigation if bureaucratic authorities reject their complaints.

"It's an important decision. If it stands, it removes significant disincentives to pursuing {discrimination} actions in court," said Elaine Kaplan, a lawyer for the National Treasury Employees Union.

Deducting hours spent on litigation from plaintiffs' annual paid vacations caused inconvenience for many and discouraged others from participating in legal proceedings, said Joseph M. Sellers of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who represents the Commerce worker.

Sellers said the worker, Wellington H. Mitchell, asked for administrative leave because he found it difficult to meet with his attorneys during the day and because he needed his paid vacation time to care for ailing family members.

The government argued that nothing in the law explicitly granted the right to administrative leave.

"The judge's order comes as a surprise to the government. We thought we had a very good case," said Joseph C. Brown, the Commerce Department's deputy director for personnel and civil rights.

Approximately 18,000 discrimination complaints are filed annually within the federal government. Only a small proportion advance to a court trial. Preparing a case for trial can consume five to 50 hours of the plaintiff's time, lawyers said.

Government officials are still assessing the ruling's implications and their next move, Brown said.

George P. Williams, an assistant U.S. attorney handling the case for the government, said the ruling is not limited to federal employes and warned that it could force private employers to "subsidize" workers' claims, too.

The ruling involves Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and came in Mitchell v. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige. The case began in 1980 and is expected to go to trial July 22. Mitchell lost one court decision but won a new trial.