FOR MORE THAN a quarter of a century, Judge David L. Bazelon had been the enfant terrible of American law. He has asked the indiscreet questions and challenged the conventional wisdom. He has forced his colleagues on the bench and at the bar to think about the things they had always done routinely. By doing so, he had exerted enormous influence on the shape of the law not only in this city, where he had served as a federal circuit judge for 30 years, but throughout the nation as well.

None of this is likely to change now that Judge Bazelon had decided, in his own words, "to step back a bit from a 30-year labor of love" and retire as a regular member of the U.S. Court of Appeals. His new status as a senior judge seems likely to free him to probe even more deeply into those dusty corners of the law where too many unexamined problems still lurk.

Judge Bazelon is best known, here and elsewhere, for having opened up, with his opinion in the Durham case, a long and still inconclusive debate on the relationship between mental illness and crime. Some of his critics claim that debate has been useless that the Durham rule has been repudiated by his own court, and that the law has not been substantially changed. They have missed the point. Judge Bazelon wanted to make lawyers and psychiatrists and others think about what they were doing to criminals who were might be mentally ill. They have thought-at least, some of them have-and the awareness of the problem, even if there is no consensus on the solution, is far greater than when the Durham case was decided.

The list of other areas of the law in which Judge Bazelon has opened doors and pointed out problems is too long to recite. There were, for example, police interrogation and investigative arrest, sentences equating a fine of $1 with one day in jail, and the failure of juvenile courts to live up to their promise of helping, not punishing, young people.

For years, the phrase "lookit" was a vital part of Judge Bazelon's private conversation. It was a contraction of "look at it," and it was uttered, forcefully and compellingly, when he was trying to persuade someone to examine an issue or a problem or a bit of conventional wisdom that had been too hastily accepted. More than any other phrase, it seems to sum up what his career has been all about. Look at it; examine it; is it right?

This community has been fortunate to have had a judge who was prepared to give the scrutiny to what ever came to his attention. Judge Bazelon has rocked the boat, violently and perhaps even unnecessarily at times, and he will no doubt keep on rocking it. But the law is better now because of what he has done.