Lewis H. Griffith, a popular Fairfax County Circuit Court judge known for his warmth and wit, was selected yesterday by his fellow judges to become chief judge upon the retirement next month of Barnard F. Jennings.

Griffith, 57, will inherit the helm of the largest and busiest circuit court in Virginia when Jennings steps down on Dec. 31 after 23 years on the bench.

"I look forward to the opportunity to contribute something," Griffith said yesterday during a short break from the courtroom. "My goal will be to ensure the present status of the court and become involved in planning for the future, short-range and long-range."

While he predicted no "sweeping changes," Griffith said most of the issues he and the 10 other judges will tackle are growth-related, including a mounting case load and the increasing complexity of civil cases.

Griffith, who is paid $77,000 a year and will receive the same amount as chief judge, served as a judge on the General District Court before becoming a circuit court judge in 1979. He received undergraduate and law degrees from American University. He and his wife Linda have five children and live in Oakton.

Griffith was nominated during the judges' monthly meeting and that motion was seconded and passed by voice vote. Other prime contenders for the post, who were not nominated, were Judges F. Bruce Bach and William G. Plummer, according to sources.

"I'm not surprised Judge Griffith was chosen by his colleagues," said Arthur B. Vieregg, president of the Fairfax County Bar Association. "Judge Griffith is a man of common sense and good humor."

Vieregg said Griffith is popular among members of the bar, particularly for his stand-up monologues at the annual judicial dinner dance. He also is well-liked by staff members at the Judicial Center, where he often has judged the annual Christmas tree contest.

Griffith described Jennings' pending departure as the "end of an era." As chief judge for 12 years, Jennings has wielded tremendous power, including responsibility for assigning cases and overseeing administrative aspects of the court.

Jennings is credited by members of the legal community with transforming the court, which had just a handful of judges when he came on board more than two decades ago, into one of the speediest trial courts in the nation. It is an accomplishment for which some have faulted Jennings, who has been known to cut off lawyers and witnesses in midsentence in his desire for speed.

Jennings' departure creates a vacancy on the bench. Rosalie Small, director of the bar association, said the Judicial Screening Committee is accepting applications until Nov. 13 and has received two. Small said the committee's recommendations will be voted on by the full bar in December and a list will be given to the General Assembly.

Like others, Small welcomed the selection of Griffith: "He's one of the kindest, gentlest people . . . . He's got the intelligence and the experience. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like Lew Griffith."