What a difference a year makes.

When Benjamin R. Civiletti appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring of 1978 as the nominee to be deputy attorney general, Republican senators held him hostage for 17 days of hearings, dragged out over three months. They grilled him about a variety of sensitive investigations: Bert Lance, Richard Helms, Korean influence-buying, the firing of GOP prosecutor David Marston.

Yesterday, Civiletti was back as the choice to succeed Griffin B. Bell as attorney general. And, despite a spark of dissent from a group of Hispanic leaders, he sailed through the hearing easily.

Five representatives of Hispanic groups opposed Civiletti's nomination because he declined to apporve prosecutions in a series of politically sensitive cases involving alleged brutality against Mexican Americans.

The panel found an attentive listener in Chairman Edward M Kennedy (D-Mass). He said he sympathized with their concerns, and waded into their midst, before the television cameras, at the noon recess.

Ruben Sandoval of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) acknowledged, though, that the group knew they couldn't block the nomination.

The National Women's Political Caucus sent a representative to urge that Civiletti appoint more women judges. And a Cambridge, MD., man was scheduled to appear to oppose Civiletti for not stopping a highwaybridge in New Jersey.

Other groups were noticeable by their absence. Jerry Berman, lobbyist fot the American Civil Liberties Union, said he didn't ask to testify because "we'd rather get him in and Bell out. We feel he is better on the 'law.'"

Several members of the committee greeted Civiletti with statements of support before the hearing began.

Civiletti had defused one issue that threatened to complicate the proceedings by agreeing to provide Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) with internal Justice Department documents describing the decision not to prosecute officers of the Gulf Oil Corp. involved in an international uranium cartel.

Bell had refused to turn over the documents, claiming that grand jury secrecy might be violated.

Civiletti spent most of the day giving lengthy answers to most questions and simple "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs" to lengthy questions from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the ranking minority member of the committee.

The 44-year-old attorney from Baltimore reiterated his promise to try to keep the department independent of political pressure. He evisioned no changes in priorites, and said the major differnece from Bell would be one of style.

The Hispanic representatives expressed special concern about Civiletti's handling of the case of Larry Lozano, a 27-year-old Mexican American who died in a Texas jail last year. Prosecution in the case was declined finally last month after an unusual fouth medical examination ordered by Civiletti found insufficient evidence that Lozano's death was murder, rather than an accident.

Civiletti noted yesterday that all the lawyers reviewing the case in March agreed that it could nor be prosecuted. But, he said, "I wasn't content to close the case," and ordered the final medical exam.

Some department lawyers familiar with the case have said they find it ironic that the Hispanic groups oppose Civiletti for being callous, when his action in Lozano went a step further than the other prosecutors felt was necessary.

The Civiletti hearings are scheduled to continue this afternoon with more testimony from Hispanic groups. Civiletti is set to appear again Friday to respond to the complaints. CAPTION: Pictures land 2, At Cabinet confirmation hearings, Partrica Roberts Harris answers Finance Committee questions while Benjamin Civiletti sails through first day at Judiciary.