William Bradford Reynolds, controversial head of the Justice Department's civil rights division for the past four years, is ready to defend himself forcefully this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee considering his nomination to the department's No. 3 post.

Reynolds gave a preview of his defense in an interview Friday, arguing that his record as head of the division is "second to none." He said he had sided with women and minorities "90 percent of the time," and dismissed his critics as "political."

The committee today will open what is expected to be two rough days of confirmation hearings on Reynolds' nomination to be associate attorney general.

Reynolds has come under particularly fierce criticism for his recent drive to eliminate quotas from voluntary equal-employment agreements or consent decrees in 50 jurisdictions. In a recent survey, only three of the localities said they would join the Justice Department's effort to halt use of numerical goals in hiring women and minorities.

William Hudnut, conservative Republican mayor of Indianapolis, condemned Reynolds for attempting to "turn back the clock on affirmative action and equal opportunity." The American Jewish Committee, an opponent of quotas, said Reynolds' drive will "reopen old wounds."

In the interview, Reynolds suggested that his attempt to amend those consent decrees was comparable to Justice Department efforts in the 1950s to enforce the then-controversial Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. He said the same "angry reaction" to an aggressive Justice Department stance followed the 1954 Brown decision. Local governments then complained "to the same extent and possibly worse about the effect of opening up old wounds."

Reynolds said his critics on the affirmative-action issue are contradicting themselves. "They are telling us they are absolutely committed to bringing larger numbers of minorities and women into the work force.

"Now the whole rationale for quotas, as I understand it, was, 'We've tried everything and we have a recalcitrant employer who is dragging his heels -- so the last-ditch effort, and it is only a last-ditch effort, is to throw quotas at you . . . .'

"Now we're hearing from all these employers, 'We're not recalcitrant, we love the idea of bringing into the work force, in a nondiscriminatory manner, minorities and women . . . . So let us hang on to our quotas.'

"There's something there that doesn't ring true," Reynolds added. "I've got a problem with the notion that we're going to hold on to a discriminatory technique when we're being told by people they really don't need it to bring larger numbers of minorities into the work force."

Reynolds warned that quotas can be a trap for minorities. He said employers who really do not want to hire qualified blacks, Hispanics or women have the "perfect out" in quotas because they can fill their quota and then "slam the door," and discriminate against all other women and minorities seeking employment and even those in the company seeking promotion.

He said those employers can tell the government, "I've got my number."

Reynolds said criticism that he is not enforcing laws is often based on the "misconception" that minority problems would end "if only there was more enforcement."

He said added enforcement will not deal with the fact that big-city public schools serving blacks are not preparing them for jobs as well as "people in the suburbs."

But he said he was not using those social problems to excuse his performance. "I'm saying I'm doing my job . . . . The cases bear it out. We're bringing more cases . . . we're getting bigger money judgments, we've got more investigations going on . . . we've got more criminal civil rights prosecutions going after racial violence and these hate groups than ever in the history of this country."

As of last October, Reynolds' division had outpaced the Carter administration in bringing criminal prosecutions and job discrimination suits but still trailed in suits brought for fair housing, school desegregation and voting rights.

Reynolds denied charges by his critics that he has altered the Justice Department's role as an enforcer of laws by interpreting the law to his liking. He said, "Everybody who sat in this chair before me interpreted the law . . . . Nobody could sit in this chair and not be about the business on a daily basis of looking at the law and trying to make the determination of whether the law fits the facts of a situation . . . ."