It was a shot heard round the small world of lawyers and lobbyists lining up influential troops for the confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork.

Noted Washington lawyer Lloyd N. Cutler, self-described "liberal Democrat" and "advocate of civil rights before the Supreme Court," disputed characterizations of Bork as "an ideologue" and "extreme right-winger."

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times July 16, scarcely two weeks after Bork's nomination to replace retired justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., Cutler, White House counsel to Jimmy Carter, predicted that a Justice Bork would turn out to be "closer to the middle than to the right, and not far from the justice whose chair he has been nominated to fill."

Since then, Cutler -- to the surprise and consternation of many friends and colleagues -- has been in the forefront of the effort to secure Senate confirmation of Bork, his friend for more than 20 years.

Cutler, who was a visiting professor at Yale Law School during Bork's tenure there and consulted the antitrust expert on auto-industry cases, attended a Bork strategy session and a mock confirmation hearing at the White House. He also wrote an article for The American Lawyer magazine supporting Bork and will testify on behalf of the 60-year-old jurist at his confirmation hearings, which begin Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, said Cutler's op-ed piece "was a setback" for those fighting Bork. "Lloyd Cutler is such a respected luminary of the bar here that it demanded a response, and a response by someone of equal stature."

The article created a furor among some lawyers in Cutler's firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which has a reputation as a liberal firm, and at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Times identified Cutler -- without Cutler's approval, he said -- as a founder of the Lawyers' Committee.

Wilmer lawyers and the Lawyers' Committee were concerned that Cutler could be misinterpreted as speaking for them -- and took steps to correct that impression.

"It created a big stir," said a lawyer at Cutler's firm. "People wanted to make sure that the public knew that was not the firm line."

Likewise, "there was some dismay" at the Lawyers' Committee, said cochairman Stuart J. Land. The commentary article "made it look like the Lawyers' Committee -- since he was identified as one of the founders -- was supporting Bork," he said.

Land and cochairman Conrad K. Harper wrote The Times to disavow any such endorsement and to say that the Lawyers' Committee was studying the nomination.

Today, the Lawyers' Committee is to release a study of Bork's civil rights views -- prepared in part by volunteer lawyers at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering -- and a statement concluding that Bork's nomination "jeopardizes the continued vitality of civil rights and liberties long enjoyed by all Americans."

Among prominent lawyers signing the statement are former attorneys general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark, former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance and former assistant attorney general Day S. Days III. Vance and Days were Cutler's colleagues in the Carter administration. Also signing are Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner Thomas D. Barr, a close friend of Cutler, and Harvard Law School Dean James Vorenberg.

The statement cited Bork's criticism of the Supreme Court's decisions establishing the principle of one-person, one-vote; denying the enforceability of racially restrictive covenants; and extending the reach of the equal-protection clause.

"Bork's record," it said, "reflects strong and consistent opposition to many of the central principles for which the Lawyers' Committee has fought" and "places him well outside the territory occupied by the most respected advocates of judicial restraint in this century."

In response, Cutler has threatened to quit the Lawyers' Committee, founded in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to spur private lawyers to help in the civil rights struggle. Cutler was cochairman of the group in 1971-73.

"I really don't know whether he will resign," Land said Saturday. "I think everything is up in the air, to be candid. He has indicated he may."

Cutler, Land said, "is a very highly respected member" of the committee. "We don't like getting into a dispute with him."

Cutler declined to say what he would do. "I obviously disagree with it," he said about the Lawyers' Committee report. "I'll draw my own conclusions as to what I should do. The Lawyers' Committee does many valuable things."

Meanwhile, Bork opponents note that Cutler, when he testified on behalf of Antonin Scalia at his confirmation hearings last year, argued that Scalia was in the mainstream of constitutional thought by citing Scalia's agreement with four liberal colleagues on the appeals court here who dissented from the dismissal of a libel case against columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.

This time around, Cutler -- like other Bork supporters -- is pointing to Bork's opinion on the opposite side as evidence that Bork is not a right-wing zealot.

Cutler expresses surprise that his views on Bork have created controversy. "I didn't make any waves when I testified on behalf of Justice Scalia, or against {U.S. Appeals Court} Judge {Daniel A.} Manion, for that matter," he said.

Although Cutler has said privately that he believes the Bork nomination will be defeated, he said in a telephone interview yesterday that the fight is too close to call. "It's anybody's ball game," he said.