Just before midnight one day this week, at the peak of Maryland's savings and loan crisis, nervous members of a state Senate committee asked government budget planner William Ratchford whether crucial language in a piece of legislation would survive a court challenge.

Ratchford answered with a tentative "yes," then turned slowly to peer at a tall, craggy man named Lowell R. Bowen, who was seated behind him. "Yes, I think it would, too," Bowen said.

The senators were visibly relieved, for Bowen's was no ordinary speculation. It was the instant advice of one of the most respected constitutional lawyers in Maryland, a snap judgment from one member of a three-man brain trust that acted virtually as a behind-the-scenes cabinet during the crisis that paralyzed the state's $9 billion thrift industry.

Bowen, together with fellow Baltimore lawyers Roger D. Redden and Shale D. Stiller, were the legal SWAT team hastily created by Gov. Harry Hughes to grapple with the intricate legal ramifications of rescuing the state's shaky savings and loans.

In calling in Bowen, Redden and Stiller to oversee the drafting of seven bills designed to protect depositors of privately insured thrifts, the Hughes administration and members of the General Assembly utilized the best of the old-boy network, a connection to three blue-chip lawyers who have been moving in and out of public service for nearly 30 years.

Early this morning as Hughes walked into his ornate reception room to sign the seven bills, the governor paused only once -- to shake hands with Redden. Moments later, Hughes -- himself a lawyer -- praised Redden, Bowen and Stiller as "the finest lawyers in the state."

In a sense, the three lawyers were but one part of machinery that included federal officials, a small army of state bureaucrats and fiscal experts and legislators, all of whom acted speedily to create a measure of confidence for Maryland's 102 privately insured savings and loans.

But insiders say Redden, Bowen and Stiller played a particularly critical role. Their combined 84 years of legal experience gave harried lawmakers the luxury of expert advice without time-consuming research.

The three were "enormously helpful because they brought a level of expertise to a lot of issues in a very limited period of time," said Ratchford, who like Hughes has strong personal ties to the three. Ratchford and Bowen served in the Air Force Reserve together; Hughes, once a partner of Bowen at the Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge, consulted with Bowen about the crisis from its outset in late April.

At 54, Bowen is the most senior member of the group, a soft-spoken man whose ancestors settled in Calvert County in 1657. His brother, Perry G. Bowen Jr., is resident judge of the county circuit court.

Bowen and Redden, 52, were classmates at the University of Maryland law school. Redden, the son of a former state senator from Caroline County (where Hughes grew up), later was a staff attorney for the state's Case Commission, which in the wake of savings and loan scandals in the early 1960s drafted "reform" legislation establishing an agency to regulate the industry.

The commission also spawned the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp. (MSSIC), the private insurer for savings and loans, which went out of business as of early today in the current savings and loan crisis.

If Bowen brought to this crisis an expertise in constitutional and business law, Redden -- a partner in the Baltimore establishment firm of Piper & Marbury -- was the acknowledged master of laws governing the state's power to authorize and issue bonds. His advice was crucial during the debate over the creation of a $100 million general obligation bond issue to fund MSSIC's successor.

Stiller, 50, who graduated from Yale Law School in 1957 -- the same year that Redden and Bowen left the University of Maryland -- is a lifelong friend and former law partner of Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. A highly regarded generalist and expert in commercial law, Stiller led one team of bill drafters who worked until 2 a.m. Thursday to craft some of the legislation.

"Being a brain trust is part of the expected dues," said F. Carvel Payne, director of the Department of Legislative Reference. "These three transcend Baltimore City law circles. They're the experts."