Daniel Fairfax O'Flaherty, Alexandria's cantankerous General District Court Judge, is, by many accounts, one of the most controversial jurists in Northern Virginia.

"I am not here to help people. I am not here to make people well," snaps the 54-year-old O'Flaherty when asked about his sentencing policy. "When it comes to a criminal case, there is only one purpose -- and that's punishment, period."

During the last three years, lawyers say O'Flaherty's bushy eyebrows frequently have dropped and his Irish temper has flashed from the Victorian-style bench in his courtroom. He has jailed three witnesses in that period for contempt of court, rejected cases that were successfully argued before other judges, and, most frequently, given lawyers repeated tongue-lashings over manners in his court.

Although some lawyers maintain that O'Flaherty is demanding, but fair, one -- who has made hundreds of appearance before the judge and requests anonymity -- declares: "I don't think Judge O'Flaherty should be on the bench."

"He may be a legal genius . . . and from a legal standpoint his decisions are justified, but from a moral standard, they are sometimes wrong," says former city prosecutor John Greenbacker, who describes O'Flaherty as one of the most unpredictable judges he has ever appeared before.

Among the incidents that have given O'Flaherty a reputation for controversy:

His recent eight-day delay in appointing a lawyer for an impoverished Richmond man jailed on a murder charge who claimed to be unfamiliar with any Washington area attorneys.

His 1973 dismissal of a burglary charge against a man claiming to be a "yoga freak," who had lapsed into a trance when arrested while carrying groceries out of a closed supermarket.

His jailing on contempt charges of a woman who supposedly pulled up her blouse and lowered her pants in his courtroom to show a scar she claimed she received in a knife fight.

None of that controversy however, is likely to be laid before the 140-people who are expected to reelect O'Flaherty to another six-year term on the bench.

The reason, critics say, is an outmoded, closed procedure that allows the state's Democratic legislators to select judges with virtually no public participation. "That system is a travesty," declares state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell, an Alexandria lawyer who argues that the process ignores not only Republicans like himself, but "all other members of the public" as well.

For instance, there's been so little known about O'Flaherty's coming reelection bid that Del. Elise B. Heinz, a lawyer and Alexandria's senior Democratic legislator, said in a recent interview she was unaware that the judge's term was ending.

Nor was the Alexandria Bar Association aware that the judge recently went to Richmond for a closed hearing before the Senate Courts of Justice Committees on his bid for another term, the bar's president said.

"It hadn't even occured to me to publicly advertise the reelection hearings," said Sen. William F. Parkerson Jr. (D-Henrico). "Maybe that's something to consider."

But Parkerson, who has tried repeatedly to win passage of legislation that would create a statewide advisory commission composed of lawyers who would comment on new judgeships, thinks the public should have a limited role in the reelection process.

"I just don't think that hearing ought to be open to the public," he said in an interview. "It ought to be closed [because] it's a personnel matter. If you open it, you might get someone who was out of hand."

Critics of the current process say the problem is that the opponents of incumbent judges fail to realize they could complain because the legislative committee hearings are never publicized. And most lawyers are fearful of making any public criticism because virtually all judges in the state are reelected by the legislature.

"It's virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent judge unless there's proof of outright fraud," Mitchell says.

Virginia's judicial selection process is among the most restricted in the nation.

Lower court judges in 46 of the 50 states are either elected by voters or appointed by governors after public hearings or by nonpartisan panels of citizens, according to Mayo Stiegler, a spokesman for the Chicago-based American Judicature Society. "That's the kind of system we like to see because it gives people the ability to show approval or disapproval of their judges, or of people who might become judges," he said.

Only North Carolina, Vermont and Rhode Island have systems similar to Virginia, Stiegler said.

Both Maryland and the District include public participation in their reappointment processes. In Maryland lower court judges are reappointed by the governor and reconfirmed by the state Senate after public hearings, according to state court administrator William H. Adkins. In the District of Columbia, a Commission on Judical Tenure and Review sends out letters to citizens groups and neighborhood organizations, asking for comments on incumbent judges, according to chairman William W. Taylor.

In Virginia the closed hearings themselves are cursory. O'Flaherty declined to comment on his, but Parkerson called the meeting "cordial" and said his Senate committee would soon declare O'Flaherty "well qualified" to be returned to the bench.

Once a judge has been declared "qualified" by the Senate and House Courts committees in Virginia, a candidate must have the backing of Democratic legislators from his hometown. Democrats caucus over judicial nomines, sometimes in private, and then vote on them by secret ballot. Once the caucuses have selected a candidate, the Democrats are bound by rule to vote in a bloc for the caucus' choice.

Since Republicans are a minority in both chambers, they claim that this procedure effectively excludes them from playing a role in the selection of any of the state's 101 General District Court judges, 62 Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judges, 108 Circuit Court judges, seven Supreme Court justices, and three member of the State Corporation Commission.

Although Alexandria's O'Flaherty is regarded as controversial by many Northern Virginia lawyers, his strong law and order approach is expected to be well received by the conservative Virginia legislature. His repeated demands for proper precedure and decorum win praise from many people who have appeared in front of him.

"He is extremely fair," said former deputy Alexandria city attorney Burton B. Hanbury Jr. "He is a bit mercurial in his personality, but I have never seen his mood affect his judgement. His greatest strength as a judge is his willingness to listen to anything you have to say."

Edward J. White, another Alexandria lawyer, said the judge "demands more from police and prosecutors than they're used to. If you're not prepared in his court, he can be definitely snapish."

That's what Beverly C. Lucas says she encountered this fall when she failed to answer a subpoena for the judge's court. Lucas claimed she would have had to miss a day's wages in order to appear as a witness in a case he had lodged against her boyfriend.

O'Flaherty found her in contempt of court and ordered her jailed for a day. "Most people have a better excuse than she had," O'Flaherty recalled in an interview. "She didn't seem to care."

The judge acknowledged that he had failed to tell her at the time she had the automatic right of appeal to a higher court.

Lucas spent nearly an hour in jail, biting off her fingernails, before O'Flaherty released her. A Circuit Court judge later threw out her sentence.

O'Flaherty, a 1947 graduate of George Washington University Law School, has strong ties to the city's old political establishment. In 1953 he was elected to the Alexandria City Council, but was defeated in a reelection bid. Appointed a substitute judge in 1956, he was named a General District Court judge in 1967 by then chief Circuit judge Franklin P. Backus.

At that time lower court judges were permitted to have private law practices and business interests that did not conflict with their courtroom duties. In the early 1970s O'Flaherty was the silent partner with lawyer William L. Cowhig before he became city prosecutor in the ownership of the Law Building, an office complex facing the courthouse where dozens of the city's attorneys have offices. He sold out his interest in 1973, a step he said recently he took to avoid the "appearance of a conflict of interest."

He was reelected to his bench without controversy six years ago.

"I would like to be remembered," he said recently, "as someone who applied the law as I understood it, that I heard people and treated them fairly."