A federal judge who had accused the Justice Department of trying to force hiring quotas on the Virginia highway department has accepted a settlement of a discrimination lawsuit that calls for "recruitment goals" and hiring "expectations."

U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner signed a consent decree negotiated by the state and the Justice Department, which had accused the highway agency of bias against blacks and women in hiring and promotion. The highway department, which employs about 10,200 people, agreed to pay as much as $1 million to past victims of discrimination and set specific hiring "expectations" for blacks and women in several job categories.

Warriner had rejected essentially the same settlement in January, claiming the goals were in fact hiring and promotion quotas. "As far as white males are concerned, the court has nothing in the record to indicate whether this class is willing to suffer the discriminatory impact of the consent decree," Warriner wrote then.

The judge backed away from his criticism Tuesday, saying the federal government had erred in drafting its initial legal papers but not in formulating the plan itself. He said he was satisfied by an amended decree that Justice filed in his Richmond court Monday, along with an affidavit from Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds. He sought to assure Warriner the Reagan administration would not condone quotas. The plan itself was not altered, according to a Justice spokesman.

"The government's error was not in its purpose or intent," Warriner wrote in a two-page opinion. "The error was in drafting the original decree or in reviewing that draft. The original consent decree quite clearly imposed quotas. The amended consent decree quite clearly does not."

The highway department suit is the third discrimination case that Gov. Charles S. Robb has settled with the federal government since his election in 1981. Lawsuits involving higher education and the state police were also settled, marking what some Robb administration officials said is a shift away from past governors' policies of resistance to such proceedings.

"The settlement represents a continuation of the department's efforts to follow equal employment principles for all," Highway Commissioner Harold C. King said yesterday. "I believe it has permitted us to avoid the possibility of prolonged and costly litigation."

The department must establish training and career-counseling programs to encourage the hiring and promotion of blacks and women. It must also report to the federal government every six months on its progress in affirmative action, although Justice promised "that it will not allege a lack of good faith efforts solely on the basis of the department's failure to meet the recruitment objectives or hiring or promotion expectations of this decree."

In addition, the department must seek out past applicants or current employes denied promotions and give them a chance to prove that their rejections were based on their race or sex. No one will receive more than $4,500 in settlement, a spokesman for the state attorney general said.

Warriner had written in his earlier opinion that calling a quota a goal is like calling a sheep's tail a fifth leg, but this week he said white male employes have nothing to fear. "Whoever gets ahead in the Virginia Department of Highways under this decree can rest assured that he or she, black or white, earned it on merit," he wrote.