Leading legal scholars are scheduled to begin a two-day discussion of civil liberties issues in Washington today as a tribute to former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

The meeting, sponsored by the California-based Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, will examine what its planners say is deepening public concern over current issues of the federal criminal code, First Amendment rights, intelligence-gathering activities and government spending.

"There is a growing fear that individual freedoms are coming to a cross-roads, and the broadest possible protection is growing public awareness," Maurice Mitchell, the center's director, explained.

Mitchell said the "William O. Douglas Inquiry Into the State of Individual Freedom," the title for the event and a book it will introduce, falls near the end of a "blockbuster year" in civil liberties issues.

He cite the disclosures of FBI and CIA abuses, debate over Nazis' rights to demonstrate publicly, and the criticism of State Department failure to intervene in Guyana Peoples Temple activities as examples that the problems are becoming more acute.

Douglas retired in 1975 after 35 years on the Supreme Court and more than 1,200 opinions, many of them centering on the Bill of Rights as essential to American society, the program's sponsors noted. His longtime friend, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who founded the center, conceived the Douglas inquiry as a "living memorial," they said.

Douglas' wife, Cathleen, a Washington attorney; has former colleague Abe Fortas; Clark Clifford and Douglas' first law clerk, David Ginsburg, are joint chairmen of the gathering, expected to attract more than 500 at the Shoreham-Americana Hotel today and tomorrow.

President Carter is scheduled to deliver a tribute to Douglas at a testimonial dinner tonight, where Chief Justice Warren Burger is to speak. Others on the program include former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, retiring Representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), CIA Director Stansfield Turner and former U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy. Douglas will eppear if his health allows it.

In what the center considers the first of a series of "inquiry" books 11 legal scholars, most of them Douglas' former law clerks, contributed chapters on civil liberties issues for the book, edited by Harry Ashmore, a former journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner.