WASHINGTON (AP) _ Americans, accustomed to watching presidents and members of Congress on television, will get their first televised look at federal judges at work next year.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal courts, approved on Wednesday a carefully controlled and limited plan to permit TV cameras to record and broadcast civil trials in a handful of federal courtrooms.

The three-year experiment will begin in July, limited to two federal appeals courts and six trial courts. Judges who volunteer their courtrooms for the plan will have almost total control over what the public sees.

Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier, D-Wis., who has been urging approval of the experiment, hailed the Judicial Conference action as a step toward promoting public understanding of the court system. ''The time for federal courts to permit TV news coverage in courtrooms has come,'' said Kastenmeier, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts. ''Technology that permits us access to world events also compels us to use that access to make our own government available to our citizens.''

Kastenmeier said televised congressional proceedings, which began in the House in 1979 and in 1986 in the Senate, have been beneficial to the public.

C-Span, the cable network that telecasts public affairs programs, also welcomed the experiment and predicted it will enhance respect for America's system of justice.

The Judicial Conference, headed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, approved the idea overwhelmingly by voice vote, said spokesman David Sellers.

Sellers indicated that Rehnquist spoke in favor of the experiment.

The conference, with 27 federal judges as its members, traditionally meets in private.

Sellers said only a few judges spoke against the experiment and that ''the pervasive view is this is inevitable.''

Forty-five states have approved the use of television cameras, and supporters say there have been no adverse results.

Wednesday's action does not mean that federal criminal trials will be televised. The Judicial Conference left intact a rule banning cameras in criminal cases.

Nor will Supreme Court proceedings be televised anytime soon. The Judicial Conference has no control over the high court, and most justices are believed opposed to permitting cameras there.

Some justices reportedly were turned against the idea after watching Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork get roughed up verbally at televised confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987. Bork subsequently was rejected by the Senate.

For years, then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger played a leading role in keeping cameras out of federal courtrooms.

Cameras and radio sound equipment have been banned in federal courts since 1937.

Those who oppose lifting the ban say television will lead to grandstanding by judges and lawyers and could distort public understanding because only snippets will be aired on TV news programs.

Sellers said three or four judges raised those objections at the Judicial Conference meeting.

He said the new experiment will be monitored by the Federal Judicial Center, a think tank for the federal courts. It will issue a report on its findings in September 1993 or March 1994.

The Judicial Conference approved a recommendation by a study committee that voted 4-1 in favor of the idea for federal courts last month. The committee is headed by U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham of San Francisco.

One item judges will insist on is that those who operate TV cameras will be dressed in business attire. ''No jumpsuits,'' said Sellers.