If it were not for the case of accused rapist Timothy Joseph Buzbee, Montgomery County Judge Rosalyn B. Bell might be a figure little known outside Montgomery County, where she has sat on the Circuit Court bench in Rockville for the past two years.

But her order in January to close to the public and press an important pretrial hearing in the Buzbee criminal case has thrust her into the news in this area and made her the center of a debate over two competing constitutional principles--the public's right to know and the defendant's right to a fair trial.

Bell has ruled that further publicity in the case, which has already received extensive coverage, could prohibit Buzbee from getting a fair trial from an impartial jury in the county.

Last week the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned much of her decision, declaring that it violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the press. Lawyers for Buzbee indicate that they will appeal to the highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Since issuing the closure order and other sweeping rulings to seal records in the case and prevent authorities from talking publicly about it, Bell has developed a new following of critics and fans.

One advocate of press freedom, Jack Landau, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, denounced her rulings last month, asserting that she was treating the Buzbee case "as some type of private arrangement between her, the defense and the prosecution." Meanwhile, many defense attorneys praised her action as a difficult decision to protect a defendant's rights.

"In the face of the present atmosphere on First Amendment rights and publicity, the person who decides that a courtroom will be closed will get a lot of criticism," said attorney Barry Helfand, who does defense work in the county. "It was a tough call, but this lady called it as she saw it."

The image of toughness is nothing new for the 59-year-old Bell, who in 1978 became the first woman on the District Court in Montgomery County. Two years later, she was elevated to the Circuit Court, which hears major criminal and civil cases.

In the past four years, the judge has gained a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist who works long, hard hours, listens to both sides and controls her courtroom.

"She lets all the lawyers know that when she says a five-minute recess, she does not mean six minutes," said one attorney. "She'll be back on the bench in five minutes, and you damn well better be there too."

Indeed, according to one courthouse story, Bell found an attorney in contempt of court for keeping her waiting and arriving late, and ordered him to pay a fine to his favorite charity.

Bell insists the story is apocryphal, though she does acknowledge that once or twice, angered by attorneys who kept juries waiting, she ordered them to make a charitable contribution. "But perhaps stories like this get around," Bell added with a laugh, "and people aren't late any more."

Attorney Rita Rosenkrantz said clients leave Bell's courtroom "feeling they've been heard. They may not always be happy with the decision, but they feel that she listened."

Bell got her start in law in the late 1940s after she and her husband moved to Washington. Bell, a business major in college, was encouraged by lawyers in the office where she worked as a clerk to enter the legal profession. It sounded good to her, since "at that time being a lawyer meant access to all sorts of interesting jobs," Bell recalled.

After going to night school to get her degree at National University, which has since merged into George Washington University, Bell went into general practice, first in the District and later in Montgomery County, where she ultimately was one of the partners in Bell, Bell & Bell, with her husband and son.

In 1978, she applied for an opening in the District Court because she felt that being a judge would be "a completion" to her career and that she "had a lot to offer in resolving disputes."

She says she believes she was chosen because of her qualifications, but added that "it would be silly to say that being a woman had nothing to do with" her appointment. Since that appointment, according to several leaders in women's bar groups, Bell has been very active in helping other women.

"Some women who have made it feel their job is ended . . . and don't get back in the trenches to help other women," said Patricia Gurne, former president of the Women's Bar Association of D.C., which in 1975 gave Bell its "Woman Lawyer of the Year" award. "But not Roz Bell. She is always promoting other women."

Bell is also working to revitalize the Women's Bar Association of Maryland and was one of the moving forces in starting a special Montgomery County chapter of that group, according to attorney Louise Scrivener.

Now Bell has turned her sights on her next goal, an appointment either to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals or to the federal bench as a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore. She has applied for openings on both courts and the appointments will be announced soon.

Bell said doing either job or remaining on the Circuit Court bench would please her. "Every once in a while you find yourself in a win, win, win situation," Bell said with a smile. "I would enjoy doing any of these jobs."