When President Reagan named Elsie L. Munsell the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia 3 1/2 years ago -- the first woman federal prosecutor in the state -- it was widely believed the appointment was a giant step toward a federal judgeship.

But now, although there is a vacancy on the bench, Munsell is given little chance of getting the appointment. Her name was among three sent to the White House last August by Sen. Paul Trible (R-Va.), but the Alexandria Bar Association did not endorse her and there are widespread complaints about how she has operated the office.

In January, the FBI began a background check on Arlington lawyer Claude M. Hilton, usually a clue as to the eventual choice, according to John Miller, a press spokesman for Trible.

Munsell's office obtained guilty pleas from all 15 people arrested and charged in a $100 million hashish ring two weeks ago -- the prosecutorial equivalent of a grand slam. But the achievement was marred by complaints when one of her assistants looked at court-sealed documents containing financial records of the kingpins, brothers Christopher and Robert Reckmeyer, of McLean, before obtaining the indictments.

On March 12, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said it felt "discomfort" with Munsell's office for seeking the Reckmeyer indictments before the appeals court had a chance to rule on whether the assistant should have been disqualified from the case. By going ahead, the government was able "to violate both court decrees . . . without any accountability in this proceeding."

On at least three other occasions, Munsell's office has been the target of rare public criticism from the courts.

U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. scored Munsell's office for its "no real harm was done" attitude over the Reckmeyer papers. "That really is a right alarming attitude for the government, the United States attorney's office to take," Bryan said in court.

In a case involving health insurance fraud, the 4th Circuit said last October that "the government's equivocation in making critical factual representations to defense counsel and to the District Court . . . fatally compromised the integrity of the proceedings on the new trial motion."

U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., who once called Munsell's office "absolutely the worst" he had seen, according to American Lawyer magazine, and said a plea arrangement her office made with Hartz Mountain Corp. last year was "the biggest miscarriage of justice that I have encountered in 40 years at the bar."

The birdseed and pet supply company was allowed to pay a $20,000 fine and plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and two counts of obstructing justice in a criminal investigation that grew out of a civil case between A.H. Robins Co., the Richmond pharmaeutical firm, and Hartz, involving allegations of unfair trade practices.

"Judge Merhige has a right to his opinion," responded Munsell, a tall, self-possessed woman with a Liza Minnelli-style haircut. "Unfortunately we had to look at what was available as to evidence . . . I regret that [he] was so frustrated by the situation . . . I think it was . . . a respectable result for us."

Critics say the 46-year-old prosecutor, one of only two female U.S. attorneys among 93 nationwide, rarely appears in court, does not control her staff, delegates too much responsibility to deputies who show poor judgment, and has failed to put her personal imprint on the office.

"I like Elsie Munsell very much and I'm very disappointed in her administration of her office," said Alexandria criminal lawyer Marvin C. Miller, one of the few lawyers who would speak on the record. "I think that in some instances there has been a lack of control and organization in the office in some regards."

Munsell said she regrets not appearing in court more, but said that is a management decision. "I delegate . . . a lot of courtroom things . . . there are just 101 things which need attention . . . you simply cannot be in court. It's a shame because that's the fun part."

She oversees a sprawling 250-mile area with two other offices in Richmond and Norfolk and a staff of 73, of whom 35 are lawyers. A former high school teacher who got her law degree in 1972 from the College of William and Mary, Munsell says it's not her style to be aggressive, adding that "I'm relatively content with a fair amount of visibility, but I also don't worry about that a lot."

A Connecticut native and life-long Republican, Munsell was appointed in November 1981 after being nominated for the $68,000 job by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). She earned high marks in her two prior assignments, as a federal magistrate in Alexandria for 2 1/2 years, and before that as head of the civil section in the U.S. attorney's office.

Munsell, who said implementing the administration's "conservative agenda" is part of her role, remains personally popular among legal adversaries, who praise her for being accessible, reasonable and true to her word. In addition, "she has a very strong sense of support for her staff," said David Hopkins, an assistant in her government fraud unit.

Much of the dissatisfaction with her office is directed against two of her deputies: Joseph J. Aronica, head of the criminal division, and Karen P. Tandy.

"I've never heard a compliment about either one of them," said lawyer Philip J. Hirschkop.

Several lawyers complained that Aronica and Tandy sometimes change their minds after initially agreeing to something. Defense lawyers complain that Aronica is difficult to reach, overly tough in plea bargaining and miserly in releasing pre-trial information.

In the Reckmeyer case, for exmple, prosecutors waited until three days before the trial to turn over statements that 12 government witnesses would make. Although there is no rule on such disclosures, they usually are provided 21 days in advance, according to defense attorneys. Tandy said the statements were withheld to protect the safety of the witnesses. At the same time, the prosecutor's office released more than 60,000 pages of information, none of it indexed.

Tandy, criticized by many for rudeness, is the one who looked at the sealed financial records of the Reckmeyers. "The court found that the documents had been inadvertently examined and that there was no bad faith," Tandy said. "There was no attempt to manipulate the court."

"In so far as my alleged rudeness is concerned," she went on, "that's the first I've heard of that . . . . I am hard-nosed, I am tough, I am aggressive and I operate with one goal -- to put those attorneys' clients in jail and I think they don't like the messenger who's delivering the message that their clients are going to jail."

"Are we in a popularity contest for this job?," responded Aronica, a feisty, Long Island native who approves all plea bargains. If defense lawyers think he's tough, "that's okay," he said.

Munsell said the criticism "concerns me, because I don't like anyone to think anyone in this office is dishonest or rude . . . but I think the truth of the matter is if someone is out there being tough and taking some positions that are hard for the other side to accept, their perceptions can be colored by emotions." Munsell declined to discuss the Tandy case.

In addition to the Reckmeyer case, Munsell and Aronica cite other major successes, including the conviction of former Portsmouth Police Chief E. Ronald Boone, of perjury, mail fraud and obstruction of justice; the 1984 convictions of more than 20 people in a drug ring in Richmond, and the recent guilty plea of a Accokeek engineer charged with illegally exporting $6.5 million in high-tech goods.