Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. says he has not told his clerks hired for the court's next term to take "defensive measures" and seek fallback jobs lest he decide to retire this year.

Rumors to that effect -- and others that Powell, 77, was planning to resign this month -- were making the rounds recently.

Not so, says Powell, who is working from home while recuperating from surgery in January to remove a cancerous prostate. In fact, the word is that Powell is firming up arrival dates for next year's clerks and has no intention of resigning.

Powell missed oral arguments in January and February, which means he probably will not vote in nearly one-third of the court's cases this year. He has been working on other cases, however, and was spotted two weeks ago in the court building, getting his hair cut in the court barbershop.

It's still not clear whether Powell will be back on the bench in time for the next round of oral arguments that starts March 18. PAYING THE JUDGES . . .

A committee of the nation's top-ranking federal judges yesterday "suggested" that a presidential pay commission "study the possibility" of giving judges the same buying power they had back in 1970.

Sounds pretty modest. In fact, the proposal would work out to a whopping 63 percent raise for the judges, from their current salaries of $76,000 a year to about $121,000, according to Joe Spaniol, spokesman for the Judicial Conference of the United States. Appeals judges, who make about $80,000, would be paid approximately $130,000.

Neither the 26-judge conference, chaired by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, nor the pay committee has "recommended" such a raise, Spaniol emphasized. The judges, he said, aren't supposed to recommend a specific salary, but simply wanted to highlight the situation for the pay commission.

There also was some grousing among the judges about the way Congress specifically excluded them from the 3.5 percent pay raise other federal workers received this year.

The judges' last raise was a 4 percent increase in 1984.

The judges made the same pay raise suggestion four years ago, Spaniol said. It didn't get very far then and it's unlikely to be approved any time soon.

The conference, which is the policy arm of the federal judiciary, might fare better with Congress in trying to help their state court brethren.

The conference decided to ask Congress to amend a 1976 civil rights law to shield state judges from having to pay attorneys' fees to anyone who wins a civil rights suit brought against them.

The resolution asks Congress to reverse a 1984 Supreme Court decision that found that state judges and magistrates, though immune from having to pay damages for their official acts, are not immune from having to pay those fees if they violate someone's civil rights. Burger dissented from the 5-to-4 ruling.

The decision caused an uproar among state judges. The state judges' Conference of Chief Justices promptly passed a resolution urging Congress to change the law and protect their pocketbooks.

Their federal counterparts have now agreed to join the call.