Civil rights groups won a major victory yesterday as the Senate Judiciary Committee approved strong enforcement machinery to prevent discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

Racial discrimination in housing has been forbidden by federal law since 1968, but the government has no powers beyond mediation to enforce powering administrative law judges within the executive branch to hear complaints and issue orders, subject to review by a commission and appeals courts, as is the procedure in regulatory agencies.

The House approved such an approach earlier this year, but a Senate Judiciary subcommittee approved an alternative procedure which would put the whole enforcement process in the federal courts, starting with hearings before magistrates and possibly leading on to jury trials in U.S. District Courts.

Civil rights groups protested that the court route would be too slow and costly, and that administrative law judges would build up an expertise that would better assure fairness.

Yesterday the full Senate Juciciary Committee voted 10 to 6 to reverse its subcommitte and substitute the administrative enforcement provision. The only Democratic vote against it was cast by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), subcommittee author of the other approach. The only Republicans voting for it were Charles McC Mathias Jr. (Md.) and Bob Dole (Kan.).

This was the key part of the bill, which backers consider the most important civil rights legislation since enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Members will be polled on several other amendments before it is reported formally to the Senate by the end of the week.

One provision civil rights forces wil try to delete from the subcommitte version is a section permitting housing appraisers to take into account "relevant and material" factors in setting fair market value. Civil rights groups fear this means considering the racial makeup of a neighborhood. The subcommittee had exempted the insurance industry from coverage of the act. tNo committee attempt will be made to reverse this for fear it would fail.