More than 50 defense attorneys, prosecutors and bar association officials and one journalist have put in their names for four D.C. court vacancies -- the highest number of applicants in years for jobs once considered too low-paying and too low in stature to be worth seeking.

Many who have applied were encouraged by a recent statement of White House Counsel Fred Fielding that competence will be stressed over affirmative action in President Reagan's appointments to the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Apppeals.

"Under [former president] Carter, there was a perception," said one white, male, first-time contender who declined to be identified, "and it may only have been a perception, that they only wanted blacks, women, and liberals [on the bench] to fill niches. I never put my name in because I didn't think I had a chance."

Frederick Abramson, chairman of the city panel that recruits judges, attributes some of the large turnout to increased efforts by his D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission to attract qualified candidates as well as the unusually large number of vacancies at one time. The panel must today recommend 12 finalists to the White House.

Clearly another factor is the changeover in administrations, Abramson said. Fielding's statement may have legitimized for some what previously was suspicion -- Abramson considers it an unwarranted suspicion -- about the selection process.

"The suspicion before was that the commission nevr really looked at who was qualified," Abramson said, "that they [and the Carter administration] wanted to appoint blacks and women and . . . competence was the last thing they looked for.

"[With] Fielding having said different, they perceive the process is different. That appeals to some people who had never gotten into the process before. 'Hey, if I get picked on that [competency] standard, even though it's for the Superior Court, that's kind of prestigious for me. I'm really going to try to get into that race now.'"

The importance of the selection process is best seen by the influence former president Carter left on the local judiciary. His Superior Court appointments filled practically half the judgeships on the 44-member court. They were more often than not blacks, women, and minorities, and each will serve 15 years.

The list of candidates for the $60,000 trial court and $64,000 appellate court posts is confidential. However, The Washington Post has confirmed the names of several dozen of the candidates, many of whom are applying for the first time.

Many of the candidates might never have stood a chance under Carter, such as Stephen A. Trimble, former president of the voluntary D.C. Bar Association (which some see as the D.C. Bar's more conservative sister organization), and John Terry, head of the U.S. Attorney's Office Appellate Division.

There are other prosecutors, such as Geoffrey M. Alprin, deputy corporation counsel in charge of the criminal division; and Reggie Walton, executive assistant to the U.S. attorney and the highest-ranking black prosecutor in the city. There is Bruce D. Beaudin, head of the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency; Matthew Watson, former auditor of the District of Columbia. Judith W. Rogers, the D.C. corporation counsel, was asked to put in her name, since some city officials felt her selection would win prestise for the city attorney's office. However, Rogers declined.

There are at least three Superior Court judges under consideration for the Appeals Court vacancy, including Sylvia Bacon, Robert A. Shuker, and James A. Belson. Other candidates include Francis Carter, a black attorney who heads the District's Public Defender service, and Zona Hostetler, head of the controversial public services activities office of the D.C. Bar.

Some of the names do not produce instant recognition, like 64-year-old Edward Stanislaus Szukelewicz, a former House Impeachment Committee lawyer; and Courts Oulahan, a 60-year-old local lawyer who, if named, will become Judge Courts Oulahan."

And finally there is Washingtonian Senior Editor John Sansing, a sometimes practicing attorney who says he would like to try "the other side of the bench," although he says he probably has a "more interesting job right now."