Gov. Harry Hughes appointed Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John F. McAuliffe, one of the most highly regarded jurists in the state, to Maryland's highest court today.

In naming McAuliffe, who established a reputation for thoughtful and sometimes brilliant decisions in 12 years on the county bench, Hughes chose a judge who some observers believe could be a moderating influence on the generally conservative Court of Appeals.

"The governor has distinguished himself by this appointment," said Hyman Shapiro, president of the 1,500-member Montgomery County Bar Association and a friend of McAuliffe.

Shapiro described McAuliffe, who recently received the highest judicial rating in the history of the bar association, as "an outstanding jurist and an intellectual giant."

"He's one of the premier trial judges, not only in Maryland but in the country," said Chief Court of Appeals Judge Robert C. Murphy. "It's a magnificent appointment."

One McAuliffe associate today described the 52-year-old Germantown resident as a "worthy successor" to Judge Rita C. Davidson, whose death from cancer on Nov. 11 created a vacancy on the seven-member high court.

Davidson, a longtime Montgomery County resident appointed in 1979, was often the lone liberal voice on the court, particularly in capital punishment and civil liberties cases.

McAuliffe is the son of James S. McAuliffe, who was chief of the Montgomery County police department for many years until the 1970s. The judge's brother, James Jr., is a former Democratic state senator from Montgomery who sits on the county circuit bench.

The appointment of McAuliffe, a Democrat, was endorsed last month by all but one of Montgomery County's seven state senators who shortly must, along with the rest of the Senate, vote on the appointment. McAuliffe's confirmation is expected to be routine.

Two other judges, Rosalyn B. Bell of the Court of Special Appeals, and John P. Corderman of the Washington County Circuit Court, also sought appointment to the high court.

In his years on the circuit bench, McAuliffe frequently was the judge assigned "difficult and sensitive cases," Shapiro recalled today.

On two occasions, for instance, he ordered blood transfusions against the wishes of members of Jehovah's Witnesses who objected to the procedure. The judge held in both cases, one of which involved a woman near death after childbirth, that a person's life should be saved.

McAuliffe is a 1955 graduate of the Washington College of Law of American University, where he now teaches trial advocacy.