"Everybody thinks that to get to be a judge is supposed to be the biggest doo-doo on earth. It aaaiiiin't. It ain't! It's just something else to do."

The words are odd, coming not only from a judge, but from one whose appointment to the federal bench was a milestone; from one who has fought tooth and nail for almost seven years to remain a judge; from one who may soon join the thin ranks of the federal judges who have been ejected from their lifetime seats through impeachment by the U.S. Congress.

But then, as one of his lawyers puts it, "Alcee Hastings is not your typical federal judge."

The first black person ever to be appointed a federal judge in the state of Florida, Alcee Lamar Hastings was also the first federal judge ever to be tried on criminal charges while still on the bench. He has spent most of his time as a judge trying to prove that he did not conspire with a Washington lawyer to solicit bribes from mobsters wanting lenient sentences in his Miami courtroom.

In 1983 a jury acquitted him of the charge. But two judges of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals filed a complaint under a 1980 law that empowers the federal judiciary to discipline individual judges for "conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts."

After a 3 1/2-year investigation and a series of unanimous votes -- by a panel of five judges, then by 14 judges of the circuit and district courts, and then by the 27-member Judicial Conference of the United States -- the judiciary asked that Congress consider impeaching Hastings. The five-judge panel's 381-page report concluded that Alcee Hastings not only conspired to solicit a bribe, but also perjured himself on a grand scale to evade punishment for it, manufacturing evidence and lying on the witness stand about 15 separate points during his trial.

By the time the House subcommittee began hearings May 18 "In the Matter of the Impeachment Inquiry Concerning U.S. District Judge Alcee L. Hastings," a third charge had been made -- that in 1985 Hastings leaked information that grew out of a wiretap order he signed, jeopardizing two FBI investigations. The Justice Department decided against prosecuting him, but an 11th Circuit investigation of this allegation is underway.

Today the eight members of the House panel are expected to end weeks of suspense over whether any of the charges will be sent on to the full Judiciary Committee and beyond, or whether the case of Alcee Hastings should be put to rest at last.

"I took an oath to uphold the law," Hastings is fond of saying. "I did not take an oath to luuuuhhv the law." His stress on the word suggests that the very idea is hilarious. "And I do not luuuuhhv the law."

At issue, though, is not whether Alcee Hastings loves the law. At issue is whether he sold it.

The reams of documents and pounds of testimony can be read to answer the question two ways, making him either an esteemed black leader who has been hugely wronged, or a man who made it big and threw it all away in some paroxysm of greed or self-destruction.

There do not appear to be any possibilities in between.

In the second week of hearings, a group of seventh- and eighth-grade American history students from Capitol Hill Day School was marched into Room 2226 of the Rayburn House Office Building to see the real thing in progress. For close to an hour, they stared obediently at the back of FBI Special Agent William J. Murphy Jr. as he was questioned about the afternoon 6 1/2 years ago when the Bureau sprang the trap it had set for Alcee Hastings.

When Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the subcommittee chairman, called a recess, Hastings chatted for a while with his lawyers. But suddenly -- almost visibly -- his radar picked up on the young life forms arrayed behind him.

He stood, turned to the children. "Hi," he said, and smiled his confiding smile. "I'm Al Hastings, the subject of this matter."

At 51 he is a small man, of delicate gestures -- not an imposing figure but an animated one. And as he talked in his musical voice, the kids gathered around him, for all the world like the children of Hamelin.

"As bored as you might be sitting here -- and I can tell you, I'm bored too -- " he said, "a substantial amount of history is taking place at this time." The reporters and cameramen nearby, having seen Hastings in action before, ignored this sideshow for several minutes. But gradually even those jaded souls shuffled closer, unable to resist the picture.

Again, you could almost see the radar: As the C-Span minicam approached, Hastings draped an arm oh-so-casually over the shoulder of a slim, freckled boy in a T-shirt. One foot up on a chair, answering questions from the diminutive crowd, he demonstrated what government prosecutors, FBI agents, reporters and anyone else who has touched this case has been learning over the past years: that Alcee Hastings is a charmer and a born fighter -- a supremely political animal.

Since his acquittal he has continued to preside over trials while scrambling to keep up the speaking engagements and community networking through which he rallies support. Most months last year, his schedule shows, he made from five to 10 appearances -- for speeches, seminars, awards -- covering 16 states over the course of the year. His speech is fiery and frank, full of distinctly nonjudicial epithets, tailored acutely to his audience -- not necessarily to what they want to hear, but to what will set their pulses pounding.

He is unapologetically partisan, routinely denouncing President Reagan. "The reason I don't like him doesn't have anything to do with whether he's a likable chap," says Hastings. "He's dumb. And I don't think the president of the United States ... ought to be some dodo." He also goes out of his way to irritate, saying of his fellow judges, "They're worried about me. And I think they're worried about me because I am demonstrating that the job is easy."

Hastings' lawyers like to point out just how partisan, just how irritating their client can be, for they believe that his trial and retrial were politically motivated. In the 21 months Alcee Hastings spent on the federal bench before the FBI investigation began, they point out, he amassed a liberal sentencing record, becoming known as "a defendant's judge." And he countermanded the federal government in several major cases -- notably in some 1981 rulings halting the mass deportation of Haitian refugees.

Hastings' lawyers conclude their client is the victim of a vengeful Establishment, a man who is being tried, in contravention of the Constitution, by all three branches of government; a man placed in double jeopardy for a crime of which he has already been absolved.

Hastings adds to this brew the potent charge of racism. In 1981, even before his indictment, he predicted "an unfair political trial tinged with notions of racism." After his acquittal, when the two judges' complaint touched off the 11th Circuit inquiry, he continued to charge prejudice: "I think if I was a white United States District Court judge, no two white United States District Court judges would have filed any complaint against me unless they had demonstrable evidence of odious behavior," he told "60 Minutes" in 1985.

Hastings' plaint has been echoed, from the start, in some important parts of the black community. Last year, when the U.S. Judicial Conference voted to refer the case to Congress for possible impeachment, the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement condemning the move. Conyers was among the members backing the statement, days before the matter was assigned to his subcommittee.

Several of Hastings' accusers -- notably Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. of Alabama, who served on the five-judge panel that first examined the evidence, and John M. Doar, the lawyer who conducted the judges' investigation -- have stellar civil rights credentials. Johnson issued some of the most significant integration rulings of the '50s and '60s, beginning with his finding, in 1956, that Rosa Parks had a constitutional right to sit where she pleased on a Montgomery bus. Doar, though perhaps best remembered for his role as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment investigation of President Nixon, worked for years in -- and in the mid-'60s headed -- the Justice Department's civil rights division, which enforced the legal gains of the civil rights movement.

Hastings' lawyers seem tired of being reminded of these credentials. "I don't believe in the notion of secular sainthood," says one of them, William G. McLain. "I'm not aware that anyone's ever canonized Frank Johnson. I'm not aware that anyone's ever canonized John Doar."

Hastings continues to dismiss the judges of the 11th Circuit as "warlocks" and racists carried away by prim notions of professional sanctity. "I don't expect them to walk up one day and say, 'I'm a racist, and that's why I did it, to get rid of that nigger,' " he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel last year. If they are not outright bigots, Hastings says, they are at least a bloodless elite who don't like his politics, his rhetoric or his style.

"I ain't in the club," he snaps. "And goddammit, I don't want to be. It's just that simple."

The Trap Set and Sprung U.S. v. Hastings was born July 20, 1981, when a character with the Dickensian name of William Dredge turned up in the office of the U.S. attorney in Miami. Dredge was under indictment in Baltimore for distributing Quaaludes by the thousand. He wanted to avoid jail, and said he had something good to swap: He knew a Washington attorney, he said, who claimed to be able to fix cases in the courtroom of Alcee Hastings.

The attorney was William A. Borders Jr., president of the predominantly black National Bar Association. Borders had raised thousands of dollars for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, and Carter had appointed him to a panel that selects judges for the District. In 1979, when the Carter administration created a search committee for several new federal judgeships, Borders was consulted on promising minority appointees, and he was one of those who urged the nomination of Hastings, a friend of almost 20 years.

Dredge first alleged that Santo Trafficante, then reputedly Florida's chief organized-crime boss, had agreed to pay $600,000 to Hastings through Borders to fix a racketeering charge. FBI agents were able to observe Borders meeting with Trafficante, but had no way to monitor their conversations. So the bureau, working with the Justice Department, decided on an undercover operation involving two defendants in another case.

Dredge said Borders had asked him to approach Frank and Thomas Romano -- brothers convicted of bilking a Teamsters pension fund of several hundred thousand dollars -- to solicit a bribe, offering low sentences and the return of nearly $1 million in property that Hastings had ordered them to forfeit. The Romanos had declined to play ball, Dredge said.

To impersonate Frank Romano, the bureau brought out of retirement an agent of roughly the right age and bearing, one H. Paul Rico. Dredge performed the introduction, and Borders took the bait.

The scam, as worked out in a series of meetings between Rico and Borders, was this: "Romano" would pay Borders $25,000 against an eventual total of $150,000, and within 10 days Hastings would order the release of some of the Romanos' forfeited property. At a subsequent meeting, "Romano" would pay Borders the remainder of the money; then, Borders said, the Romanos should drop a pending appeal and instead file a motion for an amended sentence, to which Hastings would respond with an order for probation.

The money was paid Sept. 19 and the property was released Oct. 6 -- 17 days, not 10, after the payoff. "Romano" then arranged to come to Washington on Oct. 9 to pay the remaining $125,000.

"Romano" and Borders met, as agreed, at the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington. In the meantime, Hastings too had come to Washington, for a testimonial dinner to mark the end of Borders' service as head of the National Bar Association; Borders had made Hastings' hotel reservation at the L'Enfant Plaza, and spent the morning with the judge.

When Borders got to "Romano's" room at the Twin Bridges, which the FBI had equipped with filming and recording devices, Borders threw the FBI off balance, proposing -- nearly ordering -- that Rico/"Romano" get into his car. Rico was wearing a recording device, and FBI cars surrounded Borders' car as soon as the money changed hands. "We're busted," Borders said, over the background noise of sirens.

"I'm afraid so," said Rico.

FBI agents have offered several explanations for why they arrested Borders on the spot -- among them, that they feared for Rico's safety. However, Murphy has testified -- and other documents have shown -- that the bureau intended all along to arrest Borders immediately, because it didn't want to let 125,000 of Uncle Sam's good dollars out of its hands. As agent Murphy told Conyers' subcommittee, "It would be laundered, we felt," and passed on to Hastings later in some form the FBI would not be able to trace.

The immediate arrest forced the government to go to court with a strictly circumstantial case, to which Hastings responded with the defense he maintains to this day: that William Borders was indeed conspiring to solicit bribes in Hastings' courtroom, but without the judge's knowledge.

No one ever found any dirty money in Hastings' possession. The FBI found no signs that his life style was out of the ordinary for a man earning, in 1981, $70,300 a year.

Borders was swiftly convicted March 29, 1982, and sentenced to five years in jail and a $35,000 fine. But Hastings, after a separate three-week trial, was acquitted. The jury of six men and six women, after deliberating 17 1/2 hours, concluded that the government had not established Hastings' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. {Related story this page.}

Borders returned to Washington after 33 months in Allenwood Penitentiary. The only man who could conclusively clear or implicate Alcee Hastings, he has declined, to this day, to testify.

Getting to the Bench Where he came from, where he got to. Each lends resonance to the other, and it is hard to know which drives him harder: that Alcee Hastings was Florida's first black federal judge or that Al Hastings, only child of Julius and Mildred Hastings, both domestic servants, was the first person in his immediate family to finish high school.

He describes his childhood in Altamonte Springs, a resort and farming community about 10 miles north of Orlando, where "our folk," in Hastings' phrase, worked in the great hotels -- the Altamonte and the Longwood -- or in the fields, tending celery, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines.

It was, he says, a place so closely knit that a boy playing hooky would be questioned by the town's wino about why he was out of school. He read from secondhand schoolbooks at a segregated elementary school -- the first "Negro" school built in Florida by the Rosenwald Fund, the leading white philanthropy for the benefit of blacks in the Jim Crow South.

"I might add, busing worked in those days," he says with a hard laugh. Come high school, "I went 30 miles going and 30 miles coming every day, past three white schools."

His parents, by then, had left for New York -- they would eventually go to California -- to work as live-in servants. Alcee stayed behind in Florida with his maternal grandmother as his parents earned the money that bought him books, a chance to see something of the world, eventually a college education.

He went to Fisk University in Nashville, where he majored in zoology, and then -- abandoning thoughts of medical school because of money -- to Howard Law School. "I don't think I really came into my own until I went to law school here in Washington," he says, "in terms of being genuinely of a mind that I was a cut above."

He was kicked out of Howard, however, after earning an F in one course for two consecutive terms. Citing "lack of seriousness of purpose," the school asked him to leave.

"Nobody ever thought he was an F student," says Herbert O. Reid, one of Hastings' Howard professors and now counsel to Mayor Marion Barry. "We thought the attractions in the city had just been too much for him -- too much glitter."

So Hastings finished law school at Florida A&M, passed the Florida bar and went into practice in 1964 in Fort Lauderdale -- first with a high school friend, then on his own. He quickly established that he loved two things, neither of which made much money: indigent clients and running for office. Beyond the poor and lower-middle-class clients who couldn't pay much for a lawyer, he represented a number of public interest and civil rights clients, such as the local NAACP.

Beginning in 1965, he ran twice for the city commission, then twice for the Florida House of Representatives, then for the Florida Senate. In 1970 he ran for the U.S. Senate as the first black aspirant to statewide office, and in 1974 for the state Public Service Commission. He ran seven races altogether, "and I never won any," he says, "but I feel like I won them all ... And the only reason I lost them was the fact that I was black."

Along the way he was twice married and twice divorced, and had one son, Alcee L. Hastings Jr., now a college student.

Hastings may be the only lawyer in America ever to state that he became a judge for the money. After 14 years of private practice, he was tired of living hand to mouth. Reubin Askew's decision in 1977 to appoint him a Broward County circuit court judge was a welcome change. Two years later, says Hastings, "I wanted to become a federal judge because it paid more than being a state court judge."

He has said that the only way he would step down from the bench is if the U.S. Judicial Conference would vote to continue paying him his current annual salary of $89,500.

"I've got to make a living and I earned a right to be here," he says, "but I'm not one of those people who finds the law a jealous mistress. The law is no mistress of mine! ... It's just a system to keep the status quo. And keeping the status quo means that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. You understand?"

The Status of the Office Perched on a chair in his lawyer's office, talking melodiously about the past, Hastings wears the symbol of Pierre Cardin on each ankle, the name of Dior over his shirt pocket.

"The one thing that I knew I wanted to do," he is saying, "was the one thing that my dad would say to me all the time, and that is to be your own boss man.

"It came out of the work he did. It was always menial. He was always working for somebody, and somebody could always yank his chain."

Suddenly, talking all the while, Hastings reaches into his back pocket and extracts a black leather wallet. "My friends marvel," he is saying, "at how I manage -- " He breaks off to pry his credit cards out of the wallet; they fill several compartments. Assembling them in a stack as thick as his wrist, he extends them for examination.

"All these credit cards are very dear to me," he continues. "And I'm not doing this with braggadocio, but all of 'em are very dear to me. And the reason they are is because I. Pay. My. Bills."

In the pile are four American Express cards representing three separate accounts: a standard green-colored card, a gold card, a platinum card and the new Optima card, which allows the holder to maintain a balance instead of paying the full amount owed every month; three MasterCards -- two of them gold cards, on separate banks; three Visa cards -- again, two of them gold cards on separate banks; a Diners Club card; a Carte Blanche; and three membership cards in various airlines' frequent-flier clubs.

"Most people wouldn't even dare to do that," he says, gesturing at the four American Express cards. He points out the dates embossed on the Diners Club and Carte Blanche cards, indicating that Alcee Hastings has been a "MEMBER SINCE" '64 and '67, respectively. "I had to fight to get that card," he says of the Carte Blanche. "I literally had to fight to get it, and I will die to keep it ... And I'm real proud of being able to stabilize myself like that. And you see, you could take this -- any few of those right there, and I could run up -- if I was moving around the world, I could run up a million dollars on those credit cards in nothing flat." He snaps his fingers fast for emphasis. "If I was moving around the world real fast, if you know what I mean."

He is at his most intense, most unself-conscious, now that he has struck this rich vein of monologue. Embroiled in a seven-year case that is essentially about greed, he seems helpless to stop talking about money, simply to prove -- what?

"It may be difficult for you to be mindful of the fact that blacks couldn't have bank accounts in the '40s. They couldn't even go in the bank. Okay?" he says. "And so our money, if we saved it, was saved in socks, cans, and at the post office, with no interest ... I want to make it very clear to you, I {showed you the credit cards} to highlight that my dad would be very proud of me for not having botched any of these."

"... I {pay my bills} myself; I don't have any secretary doing that," he says. Suddenly he reverses direction. "And that's not out of pride at my spending. I don't spend a lot; it pissed me off when {the prosecutor} wanted to call me a jet-setter." And, reversing again, he reaches a fever pitch. "HE'S GODDAM RIGHT I WAS A JET-SETTER! I'm a jet-setter because I earned the right to luxuriate, and I know how to protect my interests ... and I was able because I knew how to manage the little bit of money that I had better than most people do and did at a given time. And again, I credit my family with -- "

He stops, catches himself: " -- not being penny-pinching. I'm not cheap. I'm not cheap at all."

The Winding Down Few people beyond Hastings and his lawyers contend that Hastings is being subjected in the legal sense to double jeopardy. The principle is well established in law that impeachment is different from a criminal proceeding, undertaken to serve different ends. The point of a criminal prosecution is determining the innocence or guilt -- and possible punishment -- of an individual; the point of an impeachment is the sanctity -- and protection -- of an institution. The trial standard of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" is supplanted by a lesser standard of "clear and convincing evidence."

Impeachment is, however, a partly political process, and Rep. Conyers gaveled the Hastings hearings to order with this reminder: "Now this case is troubling for two reasons. I want to be very forthright in this hearing. First of all, we have an acquitted judge who is now before us, and secondly, we have a black leader who is the first black {federal} judge to be appointed in the state of Florida."

These facts, together with the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute Hastings over the 1985 wiretap leak, may make impeachment proceedings a hard sell. Even if the subcommittee finds "clear and convincing evidence" that Hastings committed one or more impeachable offenses, one fact will follow the case into the full Judiciary Committee, onto the House floor, over to the Senate: There is no political constituency clamoring for the impeachment of a popular, liberal black judge who was acquitted by a jury. By contrast U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne, who in 1986 became the first federal judge in 50 years to be impeached, was a convicted tax dodger, brought to the Senate floor from a federal penitentiary.

Nonetheless, subcommittee members have promised a vote on the merits. "We didn't ask for this case," said ranking minority member George Gekas (R-Pa.) in an interview, "but it's in front of us. Regardless of the passage of time. Regardless of the personalities involved. Regardless of the racial element ... We have to deal with it."

However they deal with it, Alcee Hastings, who has escaped so many tight spots over such an improbable time, will take comfort from the lessons of his heroes: his mother, his father, Socrates ("for being just clear as a bell about humanity and how a system can do people in, and his unwillingness to relent to it"), Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner.

There are more, but the most arresting is near the top of the list. In second place, right after Jesus Christ, is Harry Houdini.