Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) turned up the heat several degrees yesterday in his bid to get the Justice Department to turn over documents about whether an independent counsel should have been appointed to investigate Faith Ryan Whittlesey, the former ambassador to Switzerland.

Metzenbaum put a hold on four nominees for U.S. District Court seats who have cleared the Judiciary Committee: Paul Niemeyer of Maryland, Suzanne Conlon of Illinois, Edward Harrington of Massachusetts and Richard Arcara of New York. The nomination of Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California has been stalled since before Christmas.

The Judiciary Committee is seeking access to a staff report that is believed to recommend appointment of an independent counsel for Whittlesey. Attorney General Edwin Meese III ultimately decided that no further investigation was needed of Whittlesey's use of certain funds.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick S. Korten assailed Metzenbaum's action, saying it would be "inappropriate" for the department to turn over the material and that it is unfair to punish innocent nominees.

"Isn't there a federal statute that prohibits hostage-taking? It probably doesn't apply here but it's a pity," Korten said.

"I'd call it stonewalling," replied Metzenbaum aide Eddie Correia, who said he expects the nominees will be confirmed. Metzenbaum, he said, "feels that the Justice Department is being totally uncooperative and that it's impossible to know how the independent counsel law is being implemented unless they share information with the Congress."