Two women are leading contenders for election to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, increasing the odds for Northern Virginia to become the first region to break a tradition of all-male appointments to the state's second highest court.

Barbara Keenan, now a General District Court judge, and Johanna Fitzpatrick, a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, are among the three top choices of Democrats in the Fairfax County delegation to fill three possible vacancies on the Circuit Court.

The third candidate favored by Democrats is Quinlan H. Hancock, an Alexandria lawyer who was rated "best qualified" of nominees interviewed last month by the Fairfax County Bar Association.

All three were to be interviewed this week by a joint Courts of Justices Committee, the first step in the election of Virginia judges. The next comes when Democrats in both houses caucus and decide on a nominee. That nominee's appointment is automatic since the Democrats are in the majority and vote as a bloc on judicial appointments.

For Fairfax County, the immediate issue is selecting a candidate to fill the vacancy on the nine-member court left when James C. Cacheris resigned in December to become a federal judge in Alexandria. Two other judgeships will be created next July if, as expected, the General Assembly votes to expand the Fairfax Circuit Court from nine to 11 members.

Several Democrats predicted this week that Keenan, Fitzpatrick and Hancock will end up on the Circuit Court, but Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) said that a final decision on all three judgeships is yet to be made by the Democratic delegation.

"It would be fair to say one of those three will fill the seat now vacant," said Brault, "but we may very well consider some of the remaining candidates for the other two judgeships."

Democratic members of the Fairfax delegation last week interviewed eight finalists now in the running for the three vacancies. Besides Keenan, Fitzpatrick and Hancock, those finalists included Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Arnold B. Kassabian and attornies Richard E. Dixon, Stephen G. Creeden, Jack B. Stevens and John J. Karcha.

The Democrats then cast ballots indicating their preferences among the judicial nominees. Hancock got the most votes, followed by Keenan and then Fitzpatrick, according to Democratic sources.

"It would seem that Hancock, Keenan and Fitzpatrick are the leading candidates," said one Fairfax Democrat. "The general consensus was pretty well determined that one should go to a woman. Now we've got two."

The absence of any women among Virginia's 113 Circuit Court judges was an issue two years ago when federal judicial nominating panels appointed by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. claimed they had no good women candidates for appointments to federal judgeships.