AFTER A YEAR of bitter debate, accusations, investigations and even an unrelated filibuster, Edwin Meese III has been confirmed and sworn in as attorney general. Few holders of that office have had so many aspects of their personal and professional lives examined as thoroughly as Mr. Meese, and because of this searching exposure, his conduct of the office will be closely watched. Mr. Meese has long been free in expressing his views on matters that come before the Justice Department. These views are essentially the same as those of his predecessor, William French Smith and, of course, they reflect the philosophy of the president. So between the oversight by Congress and the long available record of positions taken on Justice Department issues, there should be few surprises.

One of the areas of few surprises is likely to be that of his choice of colleagues. Mr. Meese will have an opportunity right away to fill more than a dozen top- level jobs in the department, some of which have been vacant or filled by acting heads for many months. But he will also have a hand in choosing a large number of federal judges, probably more than 100 this year alone. And he must advise the president on nominations for the Sentencing Commission, a seven-member panel created by last year's criminal law reform legislation. Members of the commission will have the critically important task of writing guidelines controlling all sentences for federal crimes.

There are some limits on Mr. Meese's authority in all this. He is mainly advising on these appointments, and the Senate has the last word. But his role is a critical one, and if the new attorney general is to dispel the uneasiness and suspicion that marked his confirmation proceedings, he would be wise to reach beyond his and the president's particular political base for some nominations.

What about the substance of his work? The efforts of Mr. Meese's predecessor to mobilize federal resources to combat organized crime and narcotics traffic were commendable and should be continued. Its commitment to immigration reform should also remain a high priority. On the other hand, for our part we hope congressional resistance will hold firm against Reagan Justice Department proposals to enact a federal death penalty, limit Fourth Amendment protections and impose broad new domestic security programs.

There is much concern among civil rights proponents about the future of civil rights legislation and litigation in the Meese Justice Department. The broad outlines of policy are clear: no numerical goals in employment; no court-ordered remedies for classes of people, only for individuals who can prove discrimination; cutbacks in busing. What is not yet so clear is what the procedures will be for trying to achieve these ends. There are more and less drastic and more and less reckless ways of going about these things. About the worst would be for Mr. Meese to move to reopen consent decrees in affirmative action cases or in school desegregation cases where integration has been achieved and must be preserved. It would also be wise to maintain flexibility in negotiating the passage of legislation to overturn the Grove City case. Finally, it is absolutely necessary to search actively for qualified minority candidates to fill department and judicial positions.

The new attorney general assured senators that he intends to enforce the law as it is, not as he would like it to be. But he has the power to set priorities, to initiate litigation and to recommend legislation to the Congress. We know Mr. Meese's general positions -- and we don't suggest that he change his political opinions and forgo his whole political history and identity now -- but there will be many opportunities in the months ahead to shape policy in more subtle ways. Sensible and fair decisions at the outset will reassure many who were troubled by his nomination.