A committee of the Fairfax Bar Association has broken with its tradition of nominating only association members for county judgeships and recommended an Alexandria lawyer as "best qualified" to become a Fairfax Circuit Court judge.

Quinlan H. Hancock, 55, a Democrat and former FBI agent who lives in Alexandria, was selected by the association's nine-member Judicial Selection Committee as the highest rated of 21 candidates vying for one of the $54,000-a-year judgeships on the Fairfax Circuit Court.

Three other persons--all Democrats--were deemed "qualified" by the committee: Arnold B. Kassabian, a judge on the Fairfax Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court; Richard E. Dixon, 48, a Fairfax lawyer; and Barbara M. Keenan, 31, a judge on the Fairfax County General District Court.

As the association's 900 members began two days of meetings yesterday to vote on the top candidates and any others nominated from the floor, there was widespread disgruntlement with the way the selections were handled.

"I don't agree that this is the proper way to rank candidates--using 'qualified' and 'best qualified,' " said Democratic State Sen. Adelard L. Brault, the senior member of the Northern Virginia delegation to the General Assembly. He said the designation implies that association members should vote only for the 'best qualified' candidate. Brault said he was satisfied with the panel's choices.

Arthur L. Moshos, president of the bar association, said the committee followed the assocition's bylaws in making its recommendations. The selection of candidates for county judgeships has been a politically charged one this year because of the large number of lawyers vying for the three vacancies on the Circuit Court.

Unhappiness with the selection process spilled over into the beginning of yesterday's bar association meeting when several members sharply questioned Moshos and committee members about the criteria used to pick the recommended candidates. "I'm not going to let this go on for you people who are dissatisfied," said Moshos, when he cut off debate. "The deliberations of the committee are confidential."

One of the Fairfax vacancies was created Dec. 17 when Circuit Court Judge James C. Cacheris resigned to become a federal judge in Alexandria. The other vacancies will be created if the legislature approves two new judgeships recommended for Fairfax by the State Judicial Council.

Johanna L. Fitzpatrick, a Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge, had been rumored as a likely candidate to become the first woman to serve as a Circuit Court judge in Virginia, but she failed to get the committee's support because its members believed she lacked enough experience practicing before the Circuit Court, said a committee member who asked not to be identified.

Fitzpatrick was, however, nominated from the floor yesterday, and her name will appear on the ballot. Also nominated from the floor were: John J. Carcha, an Alexandria lawyer; Stephen G. Creeden, a Fairfax lawyer from Annandale; and Jack Stevens, a Fairfax lawyer from Alexandria.

Association members vote 'recommend,' 'not recommend' or 'no opinion' on each of the eight candidates, and any who receives a majority of votes to recommend wins the endorsement of the bar. These names are then forwarded to the Virginia General Assembly, which will make the final decision.