THE COURT AND THE CONSTITUTION By Archibald Cox Houghton Mifflin. 434 pp. $19.95

WITH NEW REAGAN appointees threatening (or promising, if that's your view) to set the Supreme Court a-countermarching, the stage is set for one of those rare popular debates on the Court's role.

If it occurs, this book will serve handily as a debater's manual. Its distinguished author, Archibald Cox, won notoriety as the Watergate special prosecutor whom Richard Nixon sacked, exciting vast public outrage, on the evening of October 20, 1973. But he brings an unusual blend of scholarship and practical experience to this historical survey. Cox has excelled in several worlds, not only as a special prosecutor but as a law professor at Harvard and as solicitor general under John Kennedy. He might now be a U. S. circuit court judge, and a good one, but for the arbitrary age "rules" of the American Bar Association.

Cox opens (news first!) with a fascinating account, from his perspective, of the celebrated "firestorm" his firing by Nixon ignited. He goes on to trace the development of the Court's authority to review federal and state legislation for constitutional validity. Then Cox focuses more narrowly on several major judicial issues of our time: school segregation and prayer, legislative malapportionment and abortion. He concludes with some speculations on the rationale and future of judicial review.

Cox falls, though not headlong, on the "liberal" side of the imaginary fence that divides current controversialists over the Court's role. He would come closer to agreeing with Justice Brennan than with Attorney General Meese about the judge's obligation to follow something called "original intent." He is an apostle, though not a strident one, of the living constitution. But Cox prefers, typically, to think of the hard constitutional issues in a more sophisticated way. The Constitution, he argues, usually creates a tension, or "antinomy" as he calls it, between two equally appealing and valid principles; and it is the judge's proper job to bear both in mind. As he writes, "On the one hand, the Court must nurture the ideal of a body of law binding the judges no less than the judged . . . On the other hand, the Court must meet the enduring human needs and aspirations of its times. These propositions, each pressed to its logical limit, cannot stand together . . . {and} over time the Court must strike the right balance and thus resolve the contradiction."

Mildy argumentative, Cox is neither polemical nor predictable. As I read his book, I was reminded of the curmudgeonly law professor in the film and TV series, The Paper Chase, superbly played by John Houseman. They will learn, Professor Kingsfield promises his students, how to avoid mush and "think like lawyers."

COX certainly does. It may border on supererogation to say so; but the quality of thinking like a lawyer isn't always obvious, even among lawyers. Cox, having had substantial experience at the cutting edge of constitutional development, gives unusual emphasis to the role of changing modes of analysis. Analytical doctrines appear under the pressure of events and judicial need, are refined and amplified, meet with political and judicial criticism, and gradually yield to others -- though sometimes to make later appearances in new guises. This is one way to make sense of constitutional development.

For instance, Cox shows lucidly how the doctrine of "substantive due process" came to be the conventional wisdom of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Courts. Lawyers, led by figures like the gifted Justice Stephen Field, drew from the 14th Amendment a convenient distinction between private and state action. Cox goes on to show how substantive due process ultimately faded (at least for a time) in the debacle of the New Deal and how the "rational purpose" test succeeded it. (The Court would discard its notion that the Constitution protected certain private economic liberties and would give wide berth to legislative judgment, so long as any rational public purpose could be discerned -- or even imagined. This became the essence of the judicial restraint doctrine.)

Later, under the challenge of a very different set of issues and plaintiffs in a very different era, the "rational purpose" mode of analysis would in turn yield to so-called "strict scrutiny," the judicial weapon with which the Warren Court fashioned its controversial activist revolution.

All of which is to say that, at the analytical level, something more systematic than laymen tend to suppose is usually going on, all but unnoticed, in the development of constitutional doctrine. A wider world takes notice only when some startling result -- the sudden upholding of a minimum wage law whose twin had only recently been overturned; the outlawing of Jim Crow in school classrooms; the standard of fair legislative representation -- suddenly emerges.

If this book has a weakness, it is the frailty that goes with Cox's lawyerly virtues. Constitutional law is not, after all, mere law; nor is the Supreme Court a mere court of law. There is always an ingredient of high politics in both, easier to account for as a reponse to the vicissitudes of history than as an evolutionary phenomenon. But no book can cover all the points.

Most of us, even if we follow the Court pretty closely, tend to think of it as nine persons, more or less learned and responsible, free-lancing in a wilderness of public issues. Cox demonstrates that the process of adjudication is always more complex than that picture would suggest.

The point is relevant today. If there is going to be a conservative counterrevolution on the Rehnquist Court, it remains today a counterrevolution in search of a compelling and artful judicial rationale. And that is but another way of saying what Cox demonstrates: It is always hazardous to try to predict the likely shape and thrust of the judicial wisdom of the next era.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.