Federal Judge Oren R. Lewis leans back in his chair half smiling and in his gruff southern drawl he begins: questioning witnesses and attorneys, interrupting lawyers who have carefully prepared their speeches the night before, leaving them flustered and confused.

He's called cantankerous and arbitrary by some; sharp and "a character" by others. At age 75, Lewis hears nearly as many cases in U.S. District Court in Alexandria as other federal judges despite being eligible for retirement. He is becoming a legend for the speedy, humorous and sometimes intimidating way he conducts his courtroom.

"It's been said by a lot lawyers that one evening we ought to have an Oren Lewis dinner where everybody would have their own Oren Lewis stories," said one lawyer "Everybody has his favorites. I have three or four or my own."

Lewis sentenced novelist Norman Maller to a five-day jail term in connection with a 1968 anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon and said that dissenters who felt they were treated unfairly "should go to another place, like Hanoi."

Civil liberties lawyer Philip J. Hirshkop recalled the time during the war when Lewis gave a demonstrator the maximum possible sentence - 30 days in jail - after making a big point of the protestor's Harvard education.

"People who are as educated as he and do things like this ought to pay the bill," Lewis said at the time. The Harvard-educated demonstrator, Lewis said, differed from hippies - who were "pathetic" - because "he dresses neatly, he's clean and he smells good." The demonstrator deserved no sympathy because of his superior education, Lewis said. The judge's sentence, however, was overturned by a higher court on appeal.

Lawyers as well as witnesses often become targets in his courtroom and Lewis almost seems to relish his reputation for being grouchy. He keeps a cartoon about a grouch on his desk in his office. It was sent to him by an admirer.

"I certainly think he's competent," said attorney Gwendolyn Jo M. Carlberg. "After I have practiced before him I don't think there's a judge sitting in the United States who chould intimidate me."

Carlberg said Lewis once embarrassed her in a crowded courtroom when he jokingly asked her if she knew the difference between an appointed attorney and one who is retained.

"He really puts you through your paces," she said.

Often cutting off witnesses' testimony when he feels it is unnecessary, Lewis has reduced to 15 minutes legal procedures that often take a week or more. he frequently says he is interested in "getting on with this thing."

At a recent hearing in a suit seeking to block the controversial Interstate Rte. 66 construction, attorneys for a District civic association wanted the Virginia Highway Department to answer a number of questions, a process estimated to take about two weeks, the lawyers said.

But Lewis asked for the questions, and asked them himself in open court.

The lawyers also said they wanted to spend several days reviewing state and federal documents concerning their case. Lewis told them to go to Richmond early Saturday morning and spend the weekend researching. "Enjoy Richmond. It's a beautiful city," he said.

The lawyers then said there were certain state highway officials they would need to interview. Lewis told them to talk to anybody they wanted. "I don't even object to (interviewing) the governor, if he knows anything," Lewis laughed.

The judge is "definitely a character," said Attorney Kenneth R. Wiener. "A great sense of humor. He's a very sharp guy . . . I always tell my clients they'll get a fair trial" with Lewis. "They get a trial with a personality."

Weiner said that several years ago he used to share an apartment with one of Lewis' law clerks and they had lots of parties. So Lewis began referring to him in court as "that attorney that lives in that commune."

"When an attorney is arguing a case, the judge really plays devil's advocate with you. I'm one of the few people around who likes Judge Lewis. With some, if you say something about Judge Lewis, they start rolling their eyes, or something," Weiner said.

Rocking in the high-backed leather chair in his office, his feet dangling on the sides. Lewis acts like a high-spirited old Virginia gentleman, although he was born and raised in Seymour, Ind., a town Lewis says is farther south than parts of Virginia.

Lewis said he did not want to be quoted because while working his way up to circulation manager for the old Washington Times-Herald from 1924 to 1933 he became familiar with newspapers and distrusted editors.

Lewis came to Washington in 1924 when his father, John Lewis Jr., was appointed by Calvin Coolidge as the first commissioner of the U.S. Court of Claims. In fact, judgeships run in Lewis' family. His grandfather, who told young Lewis stories about settlers and Indians in the Midwest, was a circuit judge under Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War. Lewis' two sons are attorneys, too.

From 1933 to 1939 Lewis was an executive with the Hearst newspaper chain and traveled across the country on business. He graduated from Hanover College in Indiana and in the late 1930s decided to continue studying for his law degree from National Law School, now the law school of George Washington University.

In 1939 he began practicing law in Northern Virginia. A Republican, Lewis ran unsuccessfully for state senator in 1951 and for commonwealth's attorney in Arlington in 1943 and 1947 and was active in Republican politics.

President Eisenhower appointed Lewis to the bench in 1960. A picture of Eisenhower in Lewis' office hangs near a personally autographed photograph of President Herbert Hoover, who Lewis met during his newspaper days.

In 1973 Lewis retired from full-time work and became a senior judge who earns $54,500 a year whether he hears cases or not. As a senior judge he can travel acoss the country to hear cases where needed. But most of the time he stays in Alexandria. He continues to work near full speed because he says it's his duty.

Although Lewis rarely fails to point out a lawyer's mistake, appeals courts have ruled that he has made a few of his own. Several of his major decisions have been overturned on appeal.

Two years ago the mail fraud convictions against four principal officials of the Pomponio real estate empire were reversed because Lewis refused to ask jurors if they had read prejudicial news stories about the trial.

Lewis had said his nightly warnings to jurors not to read the articles were enough.

In a lesser case, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of appeals ruled in March, 1971, that a matchbook cover bearing the fingerprints of a Falls Church man was insufficient evidence to convict him of burglary. The court said the jury may have been misled by Judge Lewis' inadvertent statement that the fingerprints on the matchbook had to be those of the person who had illegally entered the office that was burglarized.

The judge refused to comment on the appeals court rulings. He says he never comments on opinions after they are rendered.

"I think the man cannot handle the legal issues that come before federal judges," said a lawyer who did not want to be identified. "He's arbitrary and capricious. Lawyers settle more cases so they won't have to appear before him."

"A lot of lawyers have a love-hate relationship with him," the attorney continued. "Sometimes you'll lose a case before him and leave the courtroom banging your head on the wall. But you'll leave laughing. What he did was really humorous. Despite all these difficulties I like Judge Lewis. I don't know why. I guess he's honest. He's not a phony."

Lwis has developed a generally conservative reputation on the bench, fueled in part by his courtroom rhetoric.

Lewis once called a racially mixed group of law students and civil rights workers who tried to integrate a Fauquier County restaurant a "bunch of busybodies trying to stir up trouble," Hirshkop said. Nevertheless, Lewis ordered the restaurant owners to desegregate their business.

And despite his reputation, in his most notable desegregation case Lewis ruled against Virginia conservatives who had closed the public schools in Prince Edward County rather than admit blacks. Lewis ruled that the county could not receive state funds to run private schools for the county's white children and that the schools must be open to children of all races.

In two other desegregation cases tried before him. Lewis approved an Arlington desegregation plan, which was opposed by blacks, and upheld an Alexandira desegregation plan, opposed by whites.

Lewis said in an interview that it is his duty to see that the streets are safe for innocent people and it is his duty to see that the accused are given a fair trial.

Last month a 22-year-old woman was about to be sentenced by Lewis after pleading guilty to possession of drugs. But Lewis noted that in a probation report the woman said she had been mistakenly identified as the person who attempted to smuggle drugs to a friend at Lorton Reformatory.

But she pleaded guilty anyway because she said the evidence against her was overwhelming.

"Are you the person" who committed the crime?Lewis asked. "I want to know why you pleaded guilty."

"My lawyer said the evidence against me was kind of strong," she replied.

"It was kind of strong. You were caught red-handed," Lewis said. (But) "I don't sentence people to anything or probation if they didn't do it. I won't let you, "pleade guilty. Lewis ordered a jury trial for the woman and said he would disqualify himself as judge in the case to insure her fair trial.