Finding a judge for the annual Christmas tree contest was no problem for the office workers at 4110 Chain Bridge Rd. in Fairfax City. They have 11 on the payroll.

Welcome to Fairfax County Circuit Court, where the biggest battle this season has been raging outside its busy courtrooms. The case: which department can best decorate a Christmas tree.

"This is the fiduciary tree," explained Jane Deliee, secretary to the clerk of the court, standing beside a tree decorated with Victorian pink and red lace ribbons, ornate bulbs, an antique doll and a rocking horse.

"Who's going to get first prize?" asked Helga Huebert-Jackson, a clerk in the civil intake section, which received the most favorable verdict last year with its Mrs. Claus tree. "I'm pleading the Fifth Amendment ," answered Deliee.

"The fiduciary section, I think, has the most beautiful tree," said clerk Cynthia Keefer. "But we like ours because we did everything ourselves," she said, admiring the delicate homemade paper snowflakes and popcorn strings adorning the branches of the civil intake section's entry.

But Clerk of the Court Warren E. Barry, who started the contest last year, said the strategy has been to save the best parts for the big showdown, which is on the docket for tomorrow. "They don't want anyone to steal their ideas," he said.

That was the tactic being used in the court services section, where clerk Debbie Whorton kept a wooden manger and nativity scene hidden in a box under her desk.

In the land records section, employes were busy working on their "visions of sugar plums" theme, building strands of hard candy balls for their already calorie-laden tree featuring chocolate Kisses, suckers, candy canes for ornaments and a gigantic lollipop substituting for a star.

"We got all the candy and decided we needed a little bit more and a little bit more," said clerk Sandy Arthbun. "See, the most fun is when we take it down," she said. ("Everybody raids it every night," confessed supervisor Joan Dumas.)

The most controversial tree may be the one from the public service department, adorned with influential clothespin judges in tiny black robes. Or, it may be the one behind the double doors leading to the judges' chambers, home of, well, the judge.

"We'll bring in a judge from Prince William County!" said Chanda Kinsey, ever the attorney. And "we'll need a jury trial," she added.

But Circuit Court Judge Lewis H. Griffith, the official Christmas tree judge for the second year, insisted he cannot be swayed. Last year the tree in the judges' lobby was not in the running, he said. "It simply wasn't selected. No, I can't be influenced."

Griffith said he spent two to three hours last year studying the lavish displays before handing down his decision. "I went around and saw the trees and took notes," he said. "They had pictures that I could bring back and reflect on."

And can his decision be appealed? Sure, said Griffith: "To the great tree court in the sky."