WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal appeals court today refused to intervene in a lawsuit in which a judge found President Clinton committed a criminal violation of the Privacy Act by releasing letters of presidential accuser Kathleen Willey.

The three-judge panel strongly criticized U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's decision regarding Clinton. But the appeals judges said ``we do not take seriously'' arguments by the White House that the work of the president and his aides is hurt by the ruling.

``The district court's observations on alleged criminal activity are entirely superfluous,'' but they are not binding and so there is ``no basis'' for the appeals court to intervene, all three appeals judges said in their ruling.

``District court decisions do not establish the law of the circuit'' and ``the members of the White House Office are under no real threat of criminal prosecution,'' the appeals judges declared.

The decision stated that the appeals court can deal with the issue when the lawsuit filed by a conservative group, Judicial Watch, ends.

It is highly unusual for appeals courts to involve themselves in cases before they are disposed of at a lower level.

The 3-0 ruling was by judges Harry Edwards, a Carter appointee; David Tatel, a Clinton appointee; and Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan appointee.

The White House had argued that Lamberth's ruling would chill confidential discussions between the president and his top aides including his White House attorneys, but the appeals court said ``there has been no showing of harm of the sort required to justify the drastic remedy'' of stepping into the middle of an ongoing lawsuit.

``Absent a viable claim that some important privilege will be infringed if'' the conservative group's lawsuit proceeds, ``this court has no jurisdiction to review'' Lamberth's order, the appeals panel stated.

In a March 29 ruling, Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, found the president had the requisite intent to commit a criminal violation of the Privacy Act when he authorized the release of Willey's letters in the midst of the 1998 criminal investigation that led to Clinton's impeachment and acquittal.

White House aides viewed the Willey correspondence with the president as vital to undercutting her allegation that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance. Much of Willey's friendly correspondence with Clinton came after the alleged 1993 encounter.

The lawsuit concerns the Clinton administration's alleged violation of the Privacy Act by gathering hundreds of FBI background files of former Reagan and Bush appointees.

Although the case began with the FBI files issue, Lamberth gave Judicial Watch latitude to explore whether the White House routinely gathered and released damaging information about its political opponents, a decision that led to inclusion of the Willey letters even though Willey is not a party to the suit.