A White House decision to drop its nominee to the D.C. Court of Appeals in favor of a candidate more palatable to conservatives may have backfired, the former chairman of a D.C. judicial selection panel said yesterday.

"If White House officials are going by liberal versus conservative," said Frederick B. Abramson, president-elect of the D.C. Bar, "I think they're going to be in for a big surprise."

The White House said Friday it was withdrawing its support for Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Andrew L. Frey, whose nomination had been stalled in Congress for seven months because of conservative opposition. Frey said in an interview he had not withdrawn his name from consideration, but he declined to elaborate.

In Frey's place, the White House announced it would nominate John Montague Steadman, 54, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

According to Abramson, who headed the D.C. Judicial Nominations Commission that recommended Frey last July, the Reagan administration may now be left with a nominee less appealing to conservatives than Frey.

The Reagan administration is required to recommend a new nominee using names submitted by the selection commission. Apart from Frey, that list included Steadman and Washington lawyer John Townsend Rich.

"Of the choices left, this administration felt it wanted Steadman instead of Rich," Abramson said. "Steadman may be more liberal than Rich."

Abramson, who said he knew the "personalities involved very well," described Steadman as "apolitical." Steadman could not be reached for comment.

Steadman, who graduated summa cum laude from Yale and magna cum laude from Harvard law school, was a contemporary of Attorney General Edwin Meese III at Yale and the two were seen chatting at a Washington law function recently, according to a lawyer present.

The White House decided to drop its support for Frey after conservatives, including 13 GOP senators, complained to President Reagan that Frey was a member of groups advocating gun control and abortion and held views "very much at odds" with those espoused by the administration.

Critics immediately attacked the action as a violation of the concept of home rule for the District and as a political litmus test for judges.

"It's an unwarranted intrusion into the District's province by senators who have nothing to do with the District," Abramson said yesterday. "What do they care?

"If a group of senators went after somebody sitting on a local court in North Carolina, Sen. Jesse Helms R-N.C. would be the first to complain."

Helms was among those who signed the letter to Reagan.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), a liberal member of the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday he felt "very strongly that no judicial nominee should be judged on the basis of their political philosophy."

Metzenbaum said he voted for Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan nominee, although he disagreed with her politics because he believed she was qualified for the post.

"I don't think the issue is Frey or Steadman," Metzenbaum said. "The issue is whether or not the Senate is going to . . . pressure the president to withdraw a nominee based on an evaluation of that nominee's political philosophy."

Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus and one of Frey's most vocal critics, disagreed, however.

"Clearly, judges have become legislators today . . . ," Phillips said. "They have no post-confirmation accountability except in extreme cases.

"Therefore, just as with character and competence, it is also important to take into account a nominee's clearly manifested philosophical bias or viewpoint."