CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that Robert Bork s nomination to the Supreme Court upsets the Court's delicate balance and thus seals the Reagan Revolution. Yet if the pattern of the president's judicial appointments hold true, Bork may do more to foil than to further the Reagan agenda.

Pat Buchanan, the former White House communications director, once predicted a Justice like Bork would "do more to advance the social agenda -- school prayer, anti-pornography, anti-busing, right-to-life and quotas in employment -- than anything Congress can accomplish in 20 years." But as the Senate Judiciary Committee readies for hearings on Bork s nomination, it bears recalling that Democrats, Republicans, and prominent legal scholars alike also heralded Reagan s 320 appointments to the lower courts -- roughly 40 percent of the federal bench -- as a pack of ideologues intent on shoving the President s right-wing agenda through the courts.

In fact, a closer look at the record of Reagan s judges shows they have often ignored conservative causes, rejected the Republican platform, and repudiated the religious right. And their largely untold story raises doubt about the cataclysmic predictions now being made about Bork.

Perhaps the clearest benchmark of the Reagan judges is their position on the ultra-sensitive abortion issue. Civil rights organizations have long complained that the administration employs an anti-abortion "litmus test" to select judicial nominees. Yet Reagan s judges have compiled a record on abortion that would make Planned Parenthood proud, overturning abortion restrictions in at least six states. Last summer, for example, Judge Patrick Higginbotham -- reportedly on Reagan s short list of Supreme Court candidates -- wrote an appeals panel decision striking down a Louisiana statue barring experimentation with fetal remains. More recently, a Reagan judge even allowed a group of 27 pro-lifers to be convicted of racketeering because they purportedly "extorted" employes at a Philadelphia abortion clinic by holding four sit-in demonstrations. Janet Benshoof of the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledges there is "no real evidence Reagan s appointees have limited or rolled back the right to abortion."

What accounts for the unexpected skittishness toward the pro-life cause? Reagan s judges, it turns out, are traditional conservatives -- meaning they follow Supreme Court decisions closely, including those handed down by liberal predecessors. As Higginbotham wrote in the fetal experimentation case: "Our duty is to apply the law as it has been stated by the Supreme Court . . . we see no reason to offer our own evaluation of the Court s work." Unlike Attorney General Ed Meese -- who has pledged to challenge Supreme Court rulings he thinks are "constitutionally wrong" -- Reagan s judges translate "strict interpretation" into reticence, not revisionism.

The same deference to the status quo shows up in dozens of decisions in which Reagan s appointees refused to implement the mandate of the religious right. A Reagan judge, for example, followed the Supreme Court s lead in overturning a West Virginia law allowing silent prayer in schools. Other Reagan appointees have shown considerable hostility to letting religion anywhere near the classroom -- even during off hours. Judge Richard Posner, like Bork a highly touted conservative academic, authored a 1986 ruling stopping three evangelical Christian teachers from meeting at an Indiana elementary school to pray, sing hymns, and discuss the bible before classes. "The public," Posner snapped, "is not invited to use {the school s} facilities as a soapbox." Two months later, Posner become one of several Reagan judges to forbid the display of the cross on public property.

Nor do most Reagan judges seem to share Meese's view of hard-core pornography as unlawful "under any reasoned and reasonable interpretation of the Constitution." In Indianapolis, an appeals panel led by Reagan judge Frank Easterbrook struck down a local ordinance that forbade trafficking in hard-core pornography, claiming the law constituted "thought control." Another Reagan judge overturned obscenity ordinances in two Mississippi towns saying the "exhibition of female breast nipples . . . is constitutionally protected." Still another Reagan-appointee, Thomas Hogan even ordered the Library of Congress to continue using taxpayer funds for copies of Playboy's Braille edition.

Some liberal critics, such as Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, acknowledge Reagan s judges have stuck to existing precedents and thus failed to swerve the courts far to the right. Yet for that very reason, Tribe and others argue that Bork s nomination is all the more consequential. With Bork confirmed, the Court could overturn a slew of 5-4 decisions on abortion, affirmative action, and so on -- while the precedent-minded Reagan judges follow along like happy, docile sheep. That scenario, however, is plausible only if one assumes that practitioners of "judicial restraint" inevitably produce decisions that favor conservatives. That s clearly not the case -- as even Robert Bork has demonstrated.

The strict interpretation school holds that judges should construe their role narrowly, deferring whenever possible to the executive branch. If Walter Mondale, rather than Ronald Reagan were president, many liberals might find that kind of judicial "restraint" appealing. But even with Ronald Reagan in office, the hands-off attitude of his judges has sometimes bitterly disappointed conservatives. For example, David Finzer -- a former priest who headed the now-defunct Young Conservative Alliance for America -- is deeply disillusioned with Bork. "I always thought that conservatism stood for individual rights in the face of limited government," he complains.

Finzer's gripe extends back to 1983, when his organization tried to peacefully picket the Soviet and Nicaraguan embassies. Police stopped the demonstrators, citing an old district law prohibiting display of derogatory signs within 500 feet of an embassy. By contrast, similar demonstrations occur regularly in front of the South African embassy, and the protestors are largely left alone. Nevertheless, Judge Bork, writing the majority appeals panel opinion, upheld the law and dismissed the free speech complaints of the conservatives as "trifling."

An even more dramatic example of right-wing impotence occurred in 1985 when Soviet sailor Miroslav Medvid jumped ship in the Mississippi river and was twice returned to the ship by jangled immigration officials. Meese and other Reaganites were appalled and Senator Jesse Helms tried to have a subpoena served on the sailor. But district judge Martin Feldman, described in a Wall Street Journal profile as "a typical Reagan appointee" refused to intervene, saying that "no amount of self-centered patriotism" warrants judicial interference in foreign policy. However typical,Feldman is certainly no longer a darling of the right. When he spoke here last January, Conservative Action Foundation protesters interrupted his speech to give him the 'Pontius Pilate Award for Judicial Excellence' which, they said, "symbolizes your washing your hands, and sending Miroslav Medvid to his death" -- to which a confused Feldman politely replied, "thank you, thank you very much."

Of course, not all, or even many, Reagan judges summon up visions of Pontius Pilate. But several judges once branded as ideological extremists have helped block the conservative agenda even in relatively unchartered areas of the law. Reagan appointees, for example, mostly scoffed at the Justice department's novel theory that Baby Jane Doe, a severely handicapped infant in New York state, was discriminated against when her parents denied her life-prolonging treatment. More recently, a Reagan appointee declared a mandatory drug-testing program for police officers and firefighters in Chattanooga, Tenn. unconstitutional. And when a three-judge appeals panel last April granted the U.S. Customs Service permission to begin random drug testing, the lone dissenter was Robert Hill -- a Reagan appointee who saw "no reason to allow this invasion of the employees' fourth amendment rights without some concomitant benefit to society."

Nor have Reagan's judges shown much enthusiasm for the most recent addition to the conservative docket, protecting uninfected members of the public from AIDS. Last November, District Judge Alicemarie Stotler (described in the Sacramento Bee as a "knee-jerk conservative") ordered school officials in Atascadero, Calif. to let a 5-year-old AIDS carrier back into school even though the boy had bitten another youngster..

What accounts for the ideological non-conformity of Reagan judges when they're not clearly bound by precedent? In part, the answer is that many conservatives are closet libertarians. For example, with the exception of Reagan-appointed Justice Antonin Scalia, most Reagan judges (including Bork) take a dim view of libel actions and suits for "emotional damage" by public figures. In what may be the final insult to conservatives, Reagan judges have even defended the rights of people to do and say nasty things about the president and his aides. When a traumatized James Brady sued John Hinckley's psychiatrist for damages, a Reagan judge dismissed the action. In another decision (recently upheld by the Supreme Court), appeals judge Higginbotham defended the right of Ardith McPherson, a clerk in the Houston's constable office, to tell a co-worker, after hearing a radio report that Reagan was shot, "If they go for him again, I hope they get him." Higginbotham admitted the comment was "repulsive" but concluded: "The ideal of tolerance is sometimes sorely taxed in practice -- when that happens, there is all the more reason to recall its long-term benefits."

For all that Reagan's judges have foiled the conservative social agenda, no one should mistake them for overeager ACLU recruits. "You won't see Reagan's appointees taking over school systems, jails and ordering forced busing," says A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. Reagan promised to select judges who would put criminals "behind bars" and the evidence indicates his appointees -- to use the president's words -- aren't "a bunch of sociology majors." When an anti-nuclear protester took a jackhammer to the top of a missile silo in Missouri, a Reagan district judge sentenced him to 18 years, dismissing the claim that the protester was a political prisoner as "baloney." Indeed, a statistical analysis of 1981-1985 district court opinions by political scientists Robert Carp and Pete Rowland shows Reagan trial judges acquitted criminal defendants only 14 percent of the time -- compared to 52 percent for Carter appointees -- and are also more conservative on affirmative action, First Amendment challenges and habeas corpus petitions from prisoners.

Still,that may say more about the liberal tilt of Carter appointees than it does about the conservative jurisprudence of Reagan judges. Reagan circuit court judges, for example, are very much like colleagues appointed by other presidents. Within those powerful appeals courts, unanimity predominates -- 96 percent of the 66,500 appellate cases decided during 1985 and 1986 were unanimous rulings. According to the current Columbia Law Review, even when the 4 percent of cases that include dissents are separated, the voting behavior of Reagan judges is virtually identical to that of judges appointed by Richard Nixon and slightly less conservative than that of Gerald Ford appointees.

The interchangeability of Reagan appointees with those of Nixon and Ford is a reminder that all judges -- even purported right-wing ideologues -- are vulnerable to collegial pressures. They don't want to be reversed by a superior court. And they don't want to be dismissed as a pack of ideological automatons. In short, for some of the same reasons that Reagan's judges as a whole have defied expectations, we should also be wary of imparting too much significance to the Bork nomination. It is true that, even among Reagan appointees, Bork stands out as a conservative. But even if Bork proves a dogmatic right-winger, his ability to radically reshape American law depends on improbable assumptions: namely, that a majority of Supreme Court justices are prepared to turn their backs on time-honored precedents; that a "restrained" judiciary won't work to the advantage of Democrats once Reagan leaves office; and that Bork and his colleagues maintain an ideological conformity few judges can consistently muster.

It wasn't so long ago that similarly apocalyptic predictions were made of the Burger court -- which ended up supporting affirmative action, the right to abortion, and other liberal causes. Those now engaged in fortune-telling about a Rehnquist-Bork court would do well to remember law professor Tribe's trenchant reckoning of the Burger years: "Whoever lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass."

David Whitman is an associate editor for U.S. News and World Report.