A new system to eliminate so-called judge-shopping in the Montgomery County courthouse has defense lawyers and prosecutors complaining that the change will bog down the court system with more trials.

"I think it's a disaster," said J. Theodore Wieseman, the county's public defender. "It will double the number of trials."

Montgomery judges this week will end a 15-year-old practice in Montgomery County, unique in the region, that one circuit court judge described as unfair, inefficient and an improper expansion of the roles of attorneys.

Since the mid-1970s, as part of an informal plea bargaining arrangement, county prosecutors have offered a list of three judges to defense lawyers that they preferred for plea hearings. Defense lawyers would choose one of the pre-selected judges or make a counteroffer.

The system was developed to steer plea negotiations away from judges perceived as too soft or too harsh in their sentencings. But it has produced inequitable workloads, with a few judges overwhelmed with plea hearings and about half of the county's jurists skipped over.

That will change tomorrow under a plan announced by Judge John J. Mitchell, the administrative judge for Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Mitchell said the new system will distribute plea bargaining cases more evenly among the 13 judges on the bench and help the court reduce a backlog of more than 33,000 civil cases. "Half of my judges were overburdened with pleas, which takes away from their civil responsibilities."

Beginning this week, all felony indictments returned by the Montgomery County grand jury will be assigned randomly to judges for plea hearings. In almost all cases, only the assigned judge will be allowed to review guilty pleas negotiated by lawyers, Mitchell said.

The new plan has generated considerable controversy, Mitchell said. "I've heard from a lot of people who don't like it. But they haven't given it much of a chance, have they?"

Mitchell said critics have made "veiled threats" about increased criminal trials and congested court calendars. "I'm hoping that will not come to be," he said. "It's no more unfair to have a random judge than to have a random jury."

But many lawyers said there is no reason to change the system.

"The judges who don't have pleas before them are embarrassed," said Robert McCarthy, a Bethesda defense lawyer. "They're oddballs who have been inconsistent in their sentencings."

McCarthy said the new policy will result in "increased warfare" at the Rockville courthouse. "They will have a mess on their hands. Defense attorneys will resort to the cockroach defense: Crawl over everything and hope to screw something up."

Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner said the new plea policy is unnecessary and will lead to lawyers' trying to manipulate the court process through postponements and motions to have pleas heard before a judge they prefer. "If they close down this {old} system, it will increase inefficiency," he said.

Sonner said 93 percent of the court's criminal cases are resolved through pleas. As of Dec. 1, there were 2,850 pending indicted cases in Montgomery, and 3,100 criminal appeals and jury trial transfers from District Court, Mitchell said.

"It's not possible intellectually to defend the old system, except it worked," said Reginald W. Bours III, a Bethesda defense lawyer. Bours said defendants and lawyers wanted to avoid judges perceived as unpredictable.

"A criminal defendant wants predictability if he gives up the right to a trial," Bours said. "The least a lawyer could tell a client was that the judge was reasonable and most likely would sentence within the state sentencing guidelines." The state guidelines are only advisory; judges have wide discretion in the sentences they impose.

Circuit Court Judge Peter J. Messitte started the movement to change Montgomery's policy. In a 13-page memo circulated in July to his fellow jurists, Messitte said the old system was unfair, inefficient and placed too much authority in the hands of lawyers. In addition, Messitte said, the policy was out of step with neighboring jurisdictions.

"Some judges have dockets cluttered with criminal pleas, as many as three or four in a morning, while other judges have no pleas at all," Messitte wrote.

Besides, Messitte said, "too much of the responsibility for sentencing is taken from the judges and placed instead in the hands of the State's Attorney's Office and defense counsel, or more realistically, the State's Attorney's Office alone."

Messitte, elected to the bench in 1985, was one of the judges seldom chosen to hear plea cases. He declined to comment on the current controversy, saying the issue had turned from a scholarly discussion to "unpleasant name-calling."

Mitchell said six of the circuit court's judges were saddled with the vast majority of criminal plea hearings. The judges most sought-after for plea hearings, Mitchell said, were William C. Miller, William M. Cave, Paul H. Weinstein, L. Leonard Ruben, DeLawrence Beard and himself.

Many lawyers declined to identify judges they avoided in pleas and sentencings. "I have to work with these folks every day," one lawyer said.

In an informal survey of seven court systems in the Washington-Baltimore area, Messitte said, he found that criminal pleas are assigned arbitrarily to sitting judges.

For example, according to Messitte's memo, Fairfax County in 1987 abandoned a practice that set plea hearings on a specific day so defense lawyers knew ahead of time who the judge would be.

The new plea plan in Montgomery is similar to one recommended by Messitte. Mitchell said the 13 judges approved the new policy late this month.

Mitchell said the only exception to the random assignment rule will be last-minute pleas entered during a trial.

At that point, the trial judge must get permission from the plea judge to handle the plea and the subsequent sentencing, he said.

Longtime court observers said the old system may have outlived itself. The judges on either extreme that lawyers shunned "are either retired or are deceased," Mitchell said.

Defense lawyer Barry Helfand agreed. "With this particular group of judges in Montgomery, it hardly matters. Pick any one of them, they are all in the same range."

Bours said the new plan may force county prosecutors to broker more honestly on pleas. "The old system made prosecutors look tough, but they expected to get probation from the judge anyway."

Under the new policy, prosecutors, not judges, could have to take the heat on controversial sentencings, he said.

"This system will only work if the judges remain middle-of-the-road and moderate," Helfand said.

"If they get too easy or become too harsh, the system will be crushed."