Edward A. Tamm, 79, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 1965 who was a former high FBI official and U.S. District Court judge, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Washington.

Judge Tamm came to Washington in 1928 and graduated from Georgetown University law school two years later.

From 1930 to 1948, he served with the FBI. He was promoted from special agent to assistant director in 1934, a post that he held for six years. From 1940 to 1948, he was assistant to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

He was appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1948. During those years, the court dealt not only with the usual run of federal cases but was a court of general jurisdiction for the District of Columbia, hearing a variety of cases that normally would have been tried before state courts.

The District Court also appointed the school board. Judge Tamm's appointment to the court was questioned by some who felt that a career in the FBI was not the best training for the special judicial temperment needed. But, by all accounts, he did a fine job.

When his elevation to the Circuit Court of Appeals was announced, The Post said in an editorial:

"There were reasons to challenge Edward A. Tamm's qualifications for the federal District Court when he was named to it 16 years ago directly from a position in the FBI.

"But his service as a District Court judge has been an overwhelming response to that challenge. He has won general recognition as a trial judge of great fairness and firmness. His devotion to the law and his understanding of it have been enriched by his experience on the bench.

"He has thoroughly earned elevation, and there is every reason to expect that he will be a discerning and dedicated appellate judge."

During his years on the appeals bench, the U.S. Circuit Court here became a leading force in the protection of defendants' rights. And if the former FBI agent did not always concur with the court's liberal wing, he often was seemingly guided by a common-sense approach to the case at hand.

In a 1977 case, Judge Tamm set aside an FCC ruling that seven words (referring to such things as various sexual activities and portions of the female anatomy) could not by aired by radio.

He wrote that the FCC order carried the agency into the "forbidden realm of censorship."

He also pointed out that the broadcasting ban would prohibit the airing, not only of the George Carlin record in question, but certain of Shakespeare's plays, portions of the Bible, works of a long list of prominent authors, "and the Nixon tapes" -- a reference to the secretly recorded and profanity-laced White House tapes of the former president.

Judge Tamm made headlines in 1981 when he took his own profession to task. With a backlog of judicial work building up, and his own court the biggest federal offender, he suggested a statute that would deny salary to any federal judge who failed to dispose of a case within 60 days after the date of the hearing.

Judge Tamm estimated the chances for passage of such a law as "zero."

Judge Tamm was born in St. Paul, Minn., and attended Mount Saint Charles College in Helena, Mont., and the University of Montana before moving here. He served in the Navy reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1945, he was a special adviser to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on International Organizations. He was a trustee of St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Md., and served on the board of directors of the Police Boys Club.

He was a member of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, the John Carroll Society, and Columbia Country Club.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, the former Grace Monica Sullivan of Washington; a son, Edward A., of Amherst, Mass.; a daughter, Grace Escudero of Chevy Chase; a brother, Quinn Tamm of Kensington, and nine