San Francisco — Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. will be governor of California until Jan. 3, but he apparently has played the last big scene of his eight-year tenure. The denouement was a fitting one for the two-term Democrat who has appointed more than 800 of the 1,200 judges in the state's huge court system.
He named 18 new justices to the California Court of Appeals, plus more than a score to lower benches.
Governor Brown's critics have accused him, in the course of his two terms, of political opportunism, will-o'-the-wisp leadership, and opposition to growth. But they have attacked him most for his appointments - particularly court appointments, and especially those to the California Supreme Court.
The ''lightning rod'' for most of that criticism has been the woman he named in 1977 to lead the state's highest court: Chief Justice Rose Bird. ''Liberal activism'' seems to be the chief charge against Justice Bird and the court majority she leads. In a 1981 book about the California high court, University of California-Berkeley law Prof. Preble Stolz charged Chief Justice Bird with hastening the decline of a once-great state court system through heavy-handed administration. Others - like US Sen.-elect Pete Wilson and Gov.-elect George Deukmejian, both Republicans - base their opposition to her on flaws they sum up with phrases such as ''soft on crime.''
Six of the high court's seven members are ''Brown'' appointees - five named by Jerry Brown and one by his father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. The seventh - and the only one generally categorized as a conservative - was placed on the court by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Brown also has appointed San Francisco Appellate Court Judge Joseph R. Groden to a Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Frank Newman - also a Brown appointee.
Whether all of Brown's lame-duck court appointees will be confirmed by a panel set up under state law to do so is uncertain. Those who are not are unlikely to be named by incoming Governor Deukmejian, who as state attorney general is a member of the confirmation panel.
Brown's flurry of judicial appointments in the final weeks of his tenure is not unusual. Such last-minute appointments, judicial and otherwise, by presidents as well as governors, are an American political tradition. At the end of his second, and last, term as governor of California Mr. Reagan named 17 new judges. And Governor Brown's father nominated 75 at the end of his second term.
Despite the fact that most of the new court appointees are viewed as ''liberal'' (a few have been labeled ''moderate''), only one or two have been criticized by some commentators as unqualified to serve.
Jerry Brown's ''remaking'' of the California Supreme Court is the most visible manifestation of what already is being cited as his ''legacy'' - the movement of women, minority group members, and members of a new generation into important governmental positions. Columnist Neal Peirce, who has widely studied state governments, calls it a ''precedent shattering'' policy under which ''women, blacks, Hispanics, (and) Asians . . . received 50 percent of Brown's 6, 000-plus appointments and 40 percent of those he made to the courts.''
Of all these appointments, the ones to the judiciary are most likely to endure, despite political changes. California Supreme Court judges must ''go to the voters'' for periodic reconfirmation. But none have failed to win majority endorsement since the system was established in 1934.
In the Nov. 2 election, three of four state Supreme Court justices on the ballot for confirmation were Brown appointees. Despite strong, organized opposition and a large turnout of antigun control advocates, they won. Justice Cruz Reynoso, a Hispanic who formerly directed the California Rural Legal Assistance program, was considered most vulnerable. He eked through with a 52.6 percent favorable vote. Justice Otto Kaus got 55.6 percent and Justice Allen Broussard 56.4 percent. The lone Reagan appointee left on the court, Justice Frank Richardson, got a 76 percent majority.
Chief Justice Bird, who was confirmed by a slim 51.7 percent majority in 1978 , will be back on the ballot in 1986. Her conservative opponents are not likely to wait that long to stage another drive to oust her. An attempt to get a measure seeking Justice Bird's recall on last November's ballot faded out, but those behind it are expected to try again soon.
Whether or not the many and powerful critics of the chief justice succeed in removing her from office in the next few years, it is unlikely that the predominantly white, male ''establishment'' will soon recapture its pre-Jerry Brown dominance of the court system and other California power centers.