President Bush plans to nominate the Justice Department's criminal division chief, Michael Chertoff, a key player in the administration's war on terrorism, to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, officials said yesterday.

Chertoff, an aggressive former federal prosecutor, has overseen corporate corruption investigations in addition to spearheading the Justice Department's terrorism cases. The move surprised many department officials because of Chertoff's central role in many issues of prime importance to the Bush administration..

White House officials told New Jersey senators Jon S. Corzine (D) and Frank Lautenberg (D) of the president's intention Wednesday, Senate aides said. The White House yesterday would not comment on any pending nomination.

Chertoff's legal skills are widely respected on Capitol Hill, where he has maintained good relations with Democrats as well as Republicans. A spokesman for Corzine said the senator "has great respect for his abilities and thinks he'll do a great job." A Lautenberg aide said the senator plans to meet with Chertoff but has no plans to oppose the nomination.

His activist style has occasionally rankled some U.S. attorneys who bristle at interference from Washington.

Chertoff, 49, spent a decade as a federal prosecutor in New York and New Jersey, pursuing mafia and corruption cases. From 1990 to 1994, he was U.S. attorney in New Jersey. He did a stint in private practice at the firm Latham & Watkins, and later served as chief counsel to Senate Republicans investigating the Whitewater investment company owned by President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the criminal division under Chertoff has become a center of action in the government's pursuit of terrorists. It has taken a tough line with corporate violators, notably Enron Corp. and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen.

Last year, the White House considered naming him to the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission, when then-Chairman Harvey Pitt resigned under pressure.

Chertoff's departure for the appeals court that handles cases from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands would leave a major opening in a critical Justice Department post. Some current and former Justice officials speculated yesterday that the administration would fill it with a U.S. attorney who has handled major terrorism cases.

"The way he's doing that job, you can't do it for more than two or three years," said George Terwilliger, a high-ranking Justice official in the first Bush administration. "Every hour is tense. You go from one major thing to the next."

Michael Chertoff, the Justice Department's criminal division chief, has overseen corporate corruption investigations as well as terrorism probes.