A key legislative committee set the stage today for a protracted floor fight in the state Senate when it approved a measure shielding Maryland's 104 circuit court judges from contested elections.

Led by state Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), whose late husband was a lifetime appointee on the federal district court in Washington, members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 8 to 3 to approve legislation allowing judges to run on their records after their initial appointment by the governor. The change would eliminate the option of challengers opposing a sitting judge.

The bill would amend the state Constitution and thus would require approval by Maryland voters before becoming law.

Under current law, circuit court judges are appointed by the governor and then must be elected in the year following their appointment. If elected, judges run again in 15 years; Schweinhaut's proposal calls for elections every 10 years until a judge reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The committee vote came five hours after Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy urged the General Assembly to approve a constitutional referendum that would give voters the "clean, clear and meaningful choice" of whether a judge should continue in office.

In an address to a joint session of the Senate and House of Delegates, Murphy also announced that he had certified two new circuit court judgeships -- one for Prince George's County, the other for Montgomery -- for the coming year. That certification is the first step in establishing a new judgeship, but the legislature must still fund the positions before they can be filled.

Murphy said the new judges were needed to help those two courts with their ever increasing caseloads. But key lawmakers said it is unlikely that both judicial seats will be approved by the legislature this year.

Schweinhaut and other proponents of the constitutional amendment for judicial elections said the change would allow circuit courts to conform with Maryland's higher appeals courts, whose members face no election opponents. Schweinhaut also argued that the change would abolish the "demeaning" practice of judges campaigning and raising funds in a contested election.

As in past years, opposition to changes in circuit court elections is coming primarily from Baltimore's black legislators, who maintain that election of judges offers the best opportunity to get blacks on the bench.

"The hammer over the governor [when appointing judges] is the fact that the people have an opportunity to speak," said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III (D-Baltimore), a committee member and leading member of the Black Legislative Caucus.

In an interview, Mitchell vowed to filibuster the bill in the Senate and said he had the 17 votes needed to prolong a floor fight indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, indicated he would follow his past practice and kill any proposal similar to the one approved by the Senate committee today.

"People should have a say in who the judges are," said Owens. "I don't see why a judge in one of the counties can't campaign. The president of the United States has to."