The Vietnam war is but a distant memory, and the exuberant young protesters who gathered here for Mayday 1971 to end that war are fast approaching middle age. But a remnant of the era when protesters clashed with the Nixon administration was still kicking around last week in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant.

Like some sort of mutant life form, it is the lawsuit that wouldn't die.

Last Wednesday, Bryant approved a final settlement in Dellums et al. v. Powell et al., a hard-fought battle in which the American Civil Liberties Union charged that police unlawfully arrested more than 1,200 people who were listening to speeches on the Capitol steps on May 5, 1971.

The protesters thought they had won their case -- and a multimillion-dollar verdict -- in 1975 when a jury ruled that the arrests by D.C. and Capitol police were improper and authorities had violated their constitutional rights.

But for the next 15 years, the appeals and legal skirmishes raged. The ACLU and government lawyers haggled over how much First Amendment rights were worth.

They battled over who had been arrested and how long they had been held. And they fought over who should pay the award, the federal or D.C. government.

Then there was the 14-year feud between the ACLU and Nixon lawyers over whether transcripts of Nixon White House tapes for the period preceding Mayday 1971 should be released.

The ACLU hoped the tapes would contain evidence of a plot to snuff out the demonstration. But they never got the tapes.

At 19 years and one week old, the lawsuit stands as a testament to the tenacity of the lawyers, to the endurance of individual rights and, yes, to the insanity of a system where anything can drag on this long.

The case is so old that one of the original defendants, former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, is dead. The rest of the defendants are gone from the jobs that got them sued in the first place.

The 1,200 plaintiffs have scattered so far that even their lawyers can't find some of them. More than 70 checks, circa 1981, sit waiting for would-be winners in a safe here at the American Civil Liberties Union.

As for the lawyers, only one, Warren K. Kaplan, has been around long enough to recall firsthand why the parties were so mad in the first place.

In the courtroom last week, the opposing lawyers greeted each other like long lost brothers. "After the first 15 or 20 years, you begin to lose your adversarial edge," joked Assistant Corporation Counsel Michael E. Zielinski, who represents the District.

But the seven-volume case file, which with attachments stands six feet tall, attests to the fact that the battle was once pretty ugly.

After two decades, though, does anybody still care?

Fortunately, the answer is yes.

Plaintiffs from Mount Desert, Maine, to Berkeley, Calif., said last week that vindication is sweet no matter how long it takes.

"The wheels of justice grind slowly, but at the time of the protest, I didn't think they ground at all," said one-time protester Michael Roche, now a school psychologist near Berkeley.

"I guess I didn't know how dogged the ACLU was."

Margaret "Sam" Butterfield, another long-ago protester, said she believes that a higher force (higher even than a federal judge) is responsible for the long delay in the lawsuit's climax.

With the troop buildup in the Middle East, she said the case "is coming back to the light as a sort of echo ... a reminder that the public should not let war start again."

Based on the settlement approved last week, the federal government will pay plaintiffs a total of $60,000. Eight protesters who actually went on trial on criminal charges will be paid $3,000 apiece.

What remains of the $60,000 will be split among the other plaintiffs, with each receiving about $50. About 10 years ago, the federal government paid out about $2.5 million to protesters, which was divided up then on the basis of how long each one had been held in jail.

Despite his best efforts, not everything was settled in Bryant's courtroom last week. The lawyers are still scuffling over who will get the leftover money if some plaintiffs can't be located.

ACLU legal director Arthur B. Spitzer still gets an occasional call from some lost plaintiff, and recently placed ads around the country hoping to lure the last few into the fold.

Some, however, may never be found: They're named Richard Nixon, Carl Marx, (yes, with a C) and an assortment of Jane, John and Peter Does. Those, at least, were the names they gave when arrested.

Kaplan, the persistent lawyer who took the pro bono case from the ACLU nearly 20 years ago, is sorry to see the case draw to a close, but glad of the outcome.

"I hate to see the case go away," Kaplan said last week, "but it's a case where the system worked -- finally -- and where justice prevailed."

Newman Announces Retirement

D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Theodore Roosevelt Newman Jr., who courted controversy through 20 years on the bench, has made it official. He will retire Jan. 31. The 56-year-old Newman sent his retirement letter last week to Mayor Marion Barry.

Depending upon whom you ask, Newman, in two rocky terms as the court's chief judge from 1976 to 1984, was either feisty or abrasive, brilliant or arrogant. He said he plans to spend more time teaching evidence at Howard and Georgetown universities while he continues to hear cases on senior status.

Will he miss his old role as lightning rod? "Yes, I'll miss it," Newman deadpanned, "like a migraine headache."

And waiting in the wings is at least one judicial aspirant. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, after 16 years on the Council, has made it known he's interested in a seat on the District's high court.

"I'm looking at all possibilities," said Clarke, who made his mark in the civil rights movement as a lawyer.

He shares at least one trait with Newman: a legendary temper that he labors to keep in check.

Abramson Up for Board Job

Frederick B. Abramson, former president of the D.C. Bar, is the top choice of the D.C. Board on Professional Responsiblity to succeed Thomas E. Flynn as Bar Counsel. Flynn, who heads the office that prosecutes lawyers for the bar's disciplinary system, is retiring Jan. 1.

Abramson, a senior partner at Sachs & Tayler, was one of more than 75 applicants for the tough job. He's said to be mulling over the offer. Meanwhile, he's sticking to a strict "no comment."