Five Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee joined yesterday in an escalating attack on the Justice Department's effort to roll back consent decrees and court orders giving women and minorities preferential consideration for jobs in 50 jurisdictions across the country.

In a letter to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, they said hiring goals "should not be tampered with" but instead "should be vigorously enforced by the Justice Department."

Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) introduced legislation aimed at preventing the department from reopening and changing the consent decrees and court orders to get rid of hiring goals or quotas.

The legislation would be part of the department's budget authorization.

In addition, civil rights groups and some Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are attempting to postpone the confirmation hearings of Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Civil Rights Division, who has been nominated for promotion to associate attorney general.

The delay would give opponents more time to prepare testimony contending that Reynolds has tried to dismantle advances in civil rights.

The department's move against hiring goals began when it asked the 50 jurisdictions to join it in asking courts to modify their decrees. The request met with massive resistance from Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore and New York state among other jurisdictions.

Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, in refusing to change his city's consent decree, said the hiring goals had worked well.

On Monday the department filed a motion in federal court in Indianapolis, seeking to change the city's consent decree against its will. On Wednesday, the NAACP filed suit in U.S. District Court here, saying the administration's efforts were illegal.

The decrees and court orders resulted from suits brought by the Justice Department during previous administrations against discrimination by cities, counties and states, often in their police and fire departments.

Reynolds has said that hiring goals or quotas are discriminatory under a recent Supreme Court decision involving Memphis firefighters.

Civil rights groups and many of the target jurisdictions disagree, and federal judges around the country have upheld the legality of affirmative action plans that set numerical goals.

"To argue that the court in the Memphis case outlawed the use of all race-conscious remedies when they did not even consider the issue is questionable at best," said the letter to Meese from the five Judiciary Committee Democrats -- Rodino, John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Don Edwards (Calif.), Robert W. Kastenmeier (Wis.) and Patricia Schroeder (Colo.).

The legislation introduced by Rodino would require the department to cerify before going to court that the appellate court for the affected jurisdiction had ruled hiring goals illegal. It also would require court hearings before modifications were made -- a normal procedure anyway.

At a news conference yesterday protesting the attempt to change the consent decrees, Edwards said the department has a "continuing plot and plan to dismantle the civil rights laws in our country." He characterized the attempt as "stupid," adding, "It's a waste of government resources. It's officious meddling."

Edwards said he wanted to deliver the following message: "Don't stick your nose in cases that have already been resolved."

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said the Justice Department's "meddling" was ironic in light of the administration's claims that it wanted to let communities resolve their own affairs.

At the end of the news conference, Metzenbaum asked Edwards a question to which he already knew the answer: "What's the political affiliation of the mayor of Indianapolis?"