AFTER YEARS of doing little more than rubberstamping nominees for federal judgeships (or accepting the vetoes of senatorial courtesy), the Senate Judiciary Committee has set a new standard for prospective judges to meet. It did so by rejecting, 9 to 6, the nomination of Charles H. Winberry to be a federal district judge in North Carolina.

This is the first time in more than 30 years that the committee has voted down a nomination. Other nominations have died when the committee failed to act -- usually for political reasons. But when Sen. James O. Eastland was its chaiman, the committee made little or no effort to evaluate judicial candidates independently. It routinely approved almost anyone nominated by the president and endorsed by the senators from his home state. Opponents of a nominee could get a serious hearing in those days only on the Senate floor.

Sen. Edward Kennedy -- perhaps remembering the time he was politically burned for having supported and forced through the committee a completely unqualified nominee -- promised to change all that when he became chairman last year. The Winberry nomination is the first evidence that he is succeeding. The committee's staff investigated Mr. Winberry's legal record thoroughly and raised questions about the way he handled several cases. None of the specific allegations against him -- permitting one client to commit perjury, trying to influence a judge unethically in another case, and being involved in an attempt to bribe a judge -- was fully substantiated. But Mr. Winberry harmed his own cause by giving evasive and contradictory answers to questions about those and other matters. Those answers persuaded even the American Bar Association's judicial selection committee to withdraw its endorsement and tell the senators that Mr. Winberry lacked the candor required in a federal judge.

That would not have happened in the old days. Given Mr. Winberry's record -- which is no worse and may even be better than those of some judges now on the bench -- his nomination would have been given only a cursory examination. But with the new mood on the Judiciary Committee, not even the support of North Caroline Sen. Robert Morgan and the Carter administration could save him.

This is just the first of several controversial nominations the committee must handle this spring. If the members apply the same test to others they have applied to Mr Winberry, there may be more rejections. There are probably a few other questionable nominees among the scores of new judges the Carter administration has picked. While the application by the Judiciary Committee of a new -- and higher -- standard will be hard on those who are rejected, the judicial system and the public will benefit. Merit and qualification, determined by the Senate as well as the president, should at least be among the criteria that provide access to the federal bench.