ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 25 -- A controversial Maryland constitutional amendment that would end contested elections of circuit court judges was approved by a key House committee today when the chairman broke a tie vote and sent the issue to the full House.

The bill, backed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, faces a tough fight on the House floor and an uncertain future in the Senate, which has yet to act on the proposal. "The vote {in} the committee is indicative of the fact it's going to be a very close vote on the floor," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman William Horne (D-Talbot), whose committee was deadlocked 11 to 11 over the proposal.

Because the proposal is a constitutional amendment, it will need a three-fifths majority, or 85 delegates, to pass the House. Opponents have mentioned the possibility of a filibuster in the Senate.

Schaefer and other proponents are pushing the bill because they say it will take election-year politics out of the selection of judges. They also say that some qualified lawyers are turning down the chance to become judges because the current system requires appointed judges to run for election.

Today's vote marked the first time the legislation has made it out of committee. Two governors before Schaefer have tried to enact the proposal, only to see the judiciary committee turn it down. But the committee's complexion changed with the 1986 elections, and the new membership has approved several issues that previously had failed.

The amendment would do away with election contests for circuit court judges -- the only judges in the state who now must run for election -- and require merely that judges stand for reelection by running on their records, without opponents.

Judges would still be appointed by the governor but then would face retention elections, one in the first general election after the appointment and then at subsequent 10-year intervals.

"I think not the potential for scandal but the potential for perception of scandal exists" under the present system, Horne said, because judges are required to raise campaign funds to run for election, and most of the money comes from the lawyers who practice before them.

Horne said legislators and other officials should be indebted to those who elected them to office, but judges should not. "I don't think a judge should feel that responsibility," he said. "A judge should be totally independent."

But opponents said the change will only replace one form of politics for another. The nominating commissions that will select the candidates under the proposal will be just as political, they said, and elite as well.

"The big law firms will pass judgment on us," said Del. Louis L. DePazzo (D-Baltimore County), adding that the nominating commissions will look there for candidates.

And others said the people's right to vote on judges should not be removed lightly. The proposal, said Del. D. Bruce Poole (D-Washington County), "takes totally away from the people any direct say in who will be passing judgment on them."

In the past, the change has been opposed by rural legislators, whose constituents want to retain the right to vote on judges, and black legislators, who feel that minorities have a better chance of getting on the bench through the ballot box than the nominating commission process.