THE LAWYERS who practice in U.S. District Court in Alexandria don't call Judge Oren R. Lewis "Roarin' Oren" for nothing. And last week, on the third day of the bribery conspiracy trial of Airlie Foundation Director Murdock Head, the 77-year-old judge was at his disruptive best.

For those who haven't witnessed one of Lewis' courtroom performances, his conduct is astonishing. In a loud, harsh voice he incessantly interrupts lawyers and sometimes badgers startled witnesses. He takes it upon himself to ask questions and then summarizes the answers for the jury -- sometimes incorrectly. Sometimes he chastises lawyers and sometimes he pokes fun at them and their case. Always, he has the jury and spectators chuckling and giggling as he doles out quips about a case.

"This is a federal court, you know, it's not something else, so let's act like that," Lewis told the prosecutors at one point last Thursday when they tried to crowd around the courtroom lectern. But, as the day wore on, it was hard to tell whether the activity in Lewis' courtroom was a trial or a three-ring circus.

There are no fewer than four assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to the case, one of whom, Joseph A. Fisher III, was the prime target of Lewis' caustic comments. And it's old home week in Lewis' courtroom for the defense lawyers. Brian P. Gettings used to be U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia and Frank W. Dunham Jr. was an assistant federal prosecutor.

A month before the trial began, the U.S. Attorney's office, in a highly unusual move, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to remove Lewis from the case, because of what officials described as his "angry attitude" toward the prosecution. Last Thursday, the prosecution -- primarily Fisher -- felt the broadside of Lewis' discontent with their performance.

"Why do you keep looking at me when you ask these questions?" Lewis asked Fisher as Fisher attempted to question a key witness.

"Because I'm waiting for the objection or whatever," said Fisher, apparently referring to Lewis' well known habit of making and sustaining his own objections to a lawyer's question.

A federal appellate court once calculated that Lewis interrupted a routine, one-day criminal trial 250 times. In that case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of two men and said Lewis had "frustrated the defense at every turn" and acted like a "surrogate prosecutor." That same court characterized Lewis' examination of one witness as "brilliant." The only problem, the court said, was that it should have been done by the prosecutor -- not the judge.

There's no shortage of vintage Lewis stories among lawyers who have appeared in his courtroom and tried to devise strategies for peaceful advocacy. One prominent lawyer said, for example, that when Lewis hears motions on Friday mornings, "it's the best free show in town."

"If it weren't so serious it would be funny," this lawyer said. As to the judge himself, who has been on the federal bench since 1960, and now has the semi-retired status of a senior judge, the lawyer said, "He's a likeable guy, he really is."

At one point in Thursday's proceeding, Lewis -- in front of the jury -- accused the prosecution of "making a farce of this case," and said Fisher was deliberately asking leading questions and violating court rules.

"You better get Mr. Greenberg in here," Lewis told Fisher, in reference to Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore S. Greenberg.

"I'm here!" Greenberg called out as he returned to the courtroom.

An observer would find more polish when law students practice their trade in a moot courtroom. An occasional light moment in a long and complicated trial is welcome relief, but the silliness that day in Alexandria -- before a courtroom packed with amused spectators -- was embarrassing. Consider this exchange between Lewis and Assistant U.S. Attorney David A. Schneider after Schneider completed questioning a witness -- again before the jury:

"Did I do better this time, your honor?" Schneider asked Lewis, who had become impatient with the Richmond-based prosecution the day before as he attempted to introduce documents into evidence.

"Yes, you did much better," Lewis told him. The jury laughed.

Lewis is not the only judge who has had a few words for the prosecution in the Head case. Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., Lewis' colleague on the federal court, was sharply critical of the government after it signed an agreement with the defense that could have seriously jeopardized the government's case. "The next time you sign a stipulation, read it . . ." Bryan told the prosecutors.

Last Thursday, Lewis, who is now known as a patient man in the courtroom, on occasion took it upon himself to answer questions for witnesses.

"Right. That's my answer, what he said," said witness Diane Kidwell, pointing to Lewis, as she was cross-examined by Gettings.

"That's it. That's it, your honor," beamed prosecutor Fisher after Lewis elicited the answer Fisher apparently sought from another government witness, Charlotte Fowler, Head's former executive assistant. The jury laughed.

At another point, Lewis chided Fisher for his handling of a witness. "I could have gotten that (information) in two questions," Lewis told Fisher. Later, Lewis was critical of Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Tandy, who very briefly questioned an Internal Revenue Service supervisor about an audit of Airlie Foundation tax returns.

"Is that all you brought him over here for?" Lewis asked.

"Yes, sir," Tandy responded curtly.

"My, my my . . . good bye," Lewis said, as the witness left the courtroom. The jury laughed.

"You don't mind spending the taxpayer's money in the slightest, do you?" Lewis asked -- again in the presence of the jury.

On Friday, following newspaper accounts of Thursday's contentious session, Lewis was markedly toned down and announced that he intended to try to keep everyone calm.

"The press takes a very jaundiced view of what goes on here. Let's today try to do it with a little bit of dignity and order," Lewis said.

Lawyers may be stunned, or even outraged, by Lewis' courtroom conduct, but it is Lewis who will have the last word. To protect the independence of the U.S. judiciary, its judges are appointed for life. So, it is Lewis who must decide when it is time to step down.