Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Mathias, displaying a judicious streak of modesty while sitting back in the posh office he was about to vacate after 16 years on the bench, maintained, "I'm just a country judge in a way."

But for all his low-keyed, self-effacing manner, Mathias, in a decade and a half as a trial judge here, has been at the front line of a judicial system sometimes called overworked and slow to administer justice. It is also a system that has reflected gradual shifts of emphasis from criminals' rights to victims' rights.

"When I came on the bench, the chief thrust was rehabilitation of the defendant," said the white-haired Mathias last week, the day before his retirement at the age of 68. "I've seen a change in the attitude now toward punishment of the defendant for his transgressions, and to protecting the public."

Mathias was appointed judge in 1965 and was elected to a full 15-year term a year later. His elevation to the county circuit court came during a time of concern about criminal rehabilitation and civil liberties. The U.S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision forced arresting police officers to inform criminal suspects of their rights, while social scientists began exploring poverty and racism as the root causes of crime. Court backlogs of criminal trials became urban scandals.

Many of those protections for defendants -- such as the "exclusionary rule" which prohibits the use of any evidence gathered illegally -- were intended to act as safeguards against wrongful convictions, while protecting suspects against police excesses.

Traditionally, Mathias said, the judicial system contains "tremendous safeguards," like the absolute right to appeal a criminal conviction and the burden of proof resting on prosecutors in criminal cases.

"So I just think we possibly have gone too far in thinking about the defendants' rights to the detriment of the right of the public in general to be protected from the criminal element," he said.

"I've been on the bench for 16 years. I personally don't recall a defendant who was wrongfully convicted. I know it does happen, but it happens very rarely."

Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, helped along by spiraling crime rates and rhetoric from so-called "new right" politicians preaching law and order.

"It's swung from the chief emphasis on rehabilitating a defendant to protecting the society and punishing the defendant," Mathias said. But he cautions against a swing too far away from defendants' rights, adding, "We're pretty much evenly balanced now."

His 16 years of trying criminal and civil cases have also given Mathias the impression, shared by other lawyers and legal observers, that many cases never should wind up in court. He believes there are now too many costly jury cases and too much court litigation, which he sees as the major factor contributing to court backlogs.

"It seems to me to be an unnecessary expenditure of time and money to grant a jury trial in small cases," Mathias said, pointing out that a typical jury trial costs about $500 a day with juror fees, meals and staff salaries.

The problem is exacerbated, he said, by a Maryland state law requiring criminal defendants to be brought to trial within 180 days of arrest. That rule has made it increasingly difficult to find spots on court dockets for civil cases.

"There will come a time when we will have to restrict the use of jury trials because it's so expensive," Mathias said, predicting this country eventually will follow the example of England and Canada where jury trials are relatively rare.

As an alternative to jury trials in civil cases, Mathias said he strongly supports outside arbitration, a concept strongly backed by the state bar association. Independent arbitrators could be used in cases involving divorces, for instance, with an atmosphere of negotiation replacing the adversary relationship of a courtroom, Mathias said.

Mathias said that as a retired judge he hopes to help set up an arbitration association in the county.

"It might very well be an answer to our problem of backlogs in the courts," he said. "There are minor issues and there ought to be a way of handling them without going through the civil court proceeding."

Mathias had been observing the courts even before his appointment to the bench. As a reporter for the old Washington Times and then The Washington Post before World War II, Mathias covered the county courts. He attended the old Southeastern University School of Law in the early morning hours before he began his reporter's shift.

But even as a former journalist, the judge sees no future for television cameras in Maryland's courtrooms, where they are now forbidden by state law.

"I don't see any purpose to it," he said. "It would just create another grounds for appeal. A defendant could claim the trial was prejudiced because of the publicity he got."

Besides, Mathias said, he thinks newspaper reporters do a better job.