An article yesterday incorrectly stated that the Justice Department's Division of Land and Natural Resources has an acting chief. Frank H. Habicht has been confirmed in that post.

Edwin Meese III, if confirmed as expected by the Senate, will step into a Justice Department that has been largely in caretaker status for more than a year while he fought for confirmation.

The department has been in limbo for months while Meese jumped through legislative and legal hoops that included an investigation of his personal affairs by a special prosecutor.

Meese will face numerous decisions that have been on hold during the year of uncertainty, including appointments to top staff positions and decisions on such issues as whether to reopen up to 45 affirmative action cases.

Farm-state senators mounted a last-minute filibuster of the Meese nomination last Tuesday in an effort to force quick action on an emergency farm bill. But his confirmation was expected soon.

William French Smith, who made known his desire to return to private life early last year, stayed on the job pending action on Meese. He said goodbye to the troops yesterday even before Meese's confirmation.

"I'm departing. At least I think I am," Smith quipped. "It is purely rumor that the movie 'The Long Goodbye' is a Department of Justice documentary."

Meese, 53, was nominated for the Cabinet post last year, but his nomination ran into trouble after disclosures about his financial affairs, including reports that he had helped find government jobs for several people who had helped him financially.

An independent counsel, Jacob A. Stein, investigated the charges and concluded that Meese had not violated any law. President Reagan resubmitted Meese's nomination to the new Congress this year.

Senators opposed to Meese did most of the talking over the past week. Like his opponents on the Senate Judiciary Committee, they argued that Meese did not have the ethical standards required of an attorney general.

"Mr. Meese is insensitive to protecting the public trust in government," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

But at least two senators, William Proxmire (D-Wis.) and George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), attacked Meese on new grounds: They said he wasn't qualified for the job.

"Simply on the basis of competence this nomination should be rejected," said Proxmire, who submitted a list of 1,189 lawyers he said were "without question better qualified to head the Justice Department."

Added Mitchell: "The bulk of Meese's adult life has been spent in politics, not in the practice of law."

Two weeks ago, the Judiciary Committee voted 12 to 6, mostly along party lines, to confirm Meese. During the hearings, Meese denied that he had behaved unethically, although he said he might do some things differently today.

Meese, a former Alameda County, Calif., prosecutor, is expected to be a strong advocate for legislation that would allow evidence that is seized illegally to be introduced in court if police believed in good faith that they were seizing it legally. Meese also is expected to support the imposition of the death penalty for certain federal crimes and legislation that would restrict the rights of state prisoners to appeal their cases at the federal level.

At the Justice Department, Meese will be able to fill the top jobs in six units, including the Civil Division and the Land and Natural Resources Division, which have been operating with acting heads.

Meese also will get to choose a new head of the Antitrust Division after Assistant Attorney General J. Paul McGrath leaves in April. Of the 52 deputy assistant attorney general positions, 11 are vacant, according to a department spokesman.

Justice Department sources have said it is likely that Meese will seek to promote William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Civil Rights Division. Reynolds and Associate Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen have been briefing Meese at the White House over the past few weeks.

In addition, Meese is expected to reorganize the Criminal Division in an effort to transfer lawyers who are not real "cops and robbers" lawyers with a strong interest in law enforcement, according to one source. Meese also is expected to strengthen the leadership of the Justice Management Division, which recently has been run by attorneys from the Lands Division.

Some of the most controversial policy issues Meese will face as attorney general will be in the Civil Rights Division, which has been fighting the use of quotas in affirmative action cases.

Civil Rights Division attorneys said that Meese will have to decide whether to try to reopen up to 45 affirmative action cases in which the department believes that consent decrees have given women and minorities greater preferential treatment than permitted under a 1984 Supreme Court ruling. The division recently asked the women and minorities involved in those cases to agree to "modify" their decrees voluntarily so that only actual victims of discrimination -- not women or minorities as a class -- would receive preferential treatment.