THE WASHINGTON CHAPTER of the American Civil Liberties Union, long known as the champion of fair treatment for all, is caught up in an awkward and sometimes bitter controversy concerning the way it treats its own employes.

The furor grew out of what seemed like a simple enough decision at the time. The senior ACLU staff attorney, Ralph Temple, decided as one of his last acts before leaving for private practice to fire the junior ACLU attorney, Nina Kraut.

Then, an ACLU board member thought to ask basic ACLU-type questions: Was Kraut given "due process," such as being placed on probation, warned she was in trouble, given a hearing?"

Other members of the board, more accustomed to asking such questions rather than being examined themselves about such matters, hunkered down in a defensive posture. The rift already has produced one memo of the kind that might normally show up as Plaintiff's Exhibit No. 1 in an ACLU-sponsored court case instead of being written as an internal ACLU document.

" . . . I do not think due process is the right button for us to be pushing," ACLU board member John Vanderstar wrote in a memo to the ACLU board. "I do not believe we should . . . knee-jerk our way into some additional procedure, such as a hearing or a mediation session."

In addition to the rather unseemly behind-the-scenes maneuvering being generated by the controversy, the personnel shifts leave no official ACLU staff lawyer in the city's chapter and raise a serious question of the group's ability to place important civil liberties cases with its volunteer lawyers.

Temple, whose credentials as a civil libertarian are usually unquestioned, said he is reluctant to discuss the matter other than to say he did "everything that one should do" before firing an employe. Kraut, who did not seek exposure of the controversy, also is reluctant to publicly air the substantive aspects of the situation. She said she prefers instead to discuss procedural problems dealing with the manner in which she was terminated.

However, it is clear from an exchange of internal ACLU memos that there is concern among some ACLU board members about whether the group is committed to practice what it preaches in the area of employment rights.

According to the minutes of an ACLU board meeting on Dec. 5, ACLU board member Susan Steward -- after hearing that Kraut had been fired -- first raised the question of whether the local ACLU had any due process procedures for employes with grievances. At that time, it also appeared clear that Kraut was concerned about the lack of such rules.

On Dec. 16, Steward drafted a memo to the ACLU executive committee outlining her view that Kraut had been treated "unfairly and not in conformance with the principles the ACLU espouses (lack of adequate notice, lack of appeal rights . . .)" and suggesting a mediation or arbitration proceeding to try to reach a "mutually satisfactory settlement."

In the materials sent to board members in preparation for the Jan. 2 ACLU board meeting, Steward's memo was absent. Instead the packet contained Vanderstar's memo.

Vanderstar, a partner at Covington and Burling who is seen by some as the most senior among equals on the ACLU board, began his memo saying, "I think we are running a large risk that our civil liberties attitudes will blind us to the reality of the situation posed by Nina's dismissal."

He said he believed any review of Temple's action would not be a "suitable send-off to a person [Temple] who has devoted himself, far more than any of us, to the ACLU for a dozen years."

Vanderstar said in his memo that the only possible purpose of any hearing procedure would be to "condemn Ralph" and that there was no reason for any "elaborate" procedure to be activated when one professional decides to fire another, more junior, professional employe.

Steward received her copy of Vanderstar's memo on New Year's Eve and flew into a rage. "I thought it was quite shocking from a civil libertarian aspect," Steward said later.

She responded with a lengthy memo of her own and asked that the matter be placed on the agenda of the Jan. 2 meeting. It was last on a long agenda, and wasn't reached until around 11:30 p.m.

By that time, Steward had gotten fed up and left. Kraut indicated it was too late at night to discuss the subject, and asked for the matter to be postponed until the next ACLU board meeting in February.

There is where it now stands. Kraut, who says she is perplexed by the situation, thinks she is entitled to some kind of grievance procedure. Temple has prepared a written submission to the board about the reasons for firing Kraut, and she is preparing a rebuttal. t

Steward still is concerned with the ACLU's practices, liberties principles." Vanderstar said his memo, "like any communication not intended for the public," was written in a particular context and that everyone who received it knew what he really meant.

Temple is downplaying the lack of continuity caused by his and Kraut's absence, even though the ACLU's own minutes show that the lag between his leaving and a new person being hired will probably result in the ACLU "dropping some" planned lawsuits in the civil liberties area.

The Washington chapter of the ACLU, meanwhile, is advertising for a new legal director. They want a lawyer with three years' experience, good writing ability and "abundant energy, tough-mindedness and good humor."

For that, they are willing to pay $20,000 to $25,000 a year, an extremely low amount for a job as important in the civil liberties hierarchy here.

Maybe that low salary -- and the board's infighting -- is why "good humor" is such an important job qualification.

Richard D. Siegel has joined the firm of Bechhoefer, Sharlitt and Lyman and the name of the firm has been changed to Bechhoefer, Sharlitt and Siegel. Joseph J. Lyman has withdrawn from the firm to become a member of Leitner, Palan, Lyman, Martin and Bernstein . . . (Joseph A.) Califano, (Stanford G.) Ross and (Benjamin W.) Heineman has announced the opening of its offices at 1775 Pennsylvania Ave. NW . . . Meyer Eisenberg and Burton L. Raimi will open a Washington office of the New York firm of Rosenman Colin Freund Lewis and Cohen here in February . . . Hugh L. Patterson of Norfolk has been named president-elect of the Virginia Bar Association, and L. Lee Bean of Arlington is the 1980 president of the group . . . Neal A. Jackson has opened the Washington office of the North Carolina-based firm of Sanford, Adams, McCullough and Beard.