After 18 years on the bench -- with armed bodyguards, at times -- U.S. District Judge Robert Reynold Merhige Jr. is thinking about handing down a decision that, for once, would please his old, conservative critics no end.

He may quit.

"Senior [semiretired] status at the least," said Merhige, 66, who once stood as a symbol of federal intrusion in the South's racial affairs.

Or maybe out-and-out retirement, made feasible by his millionaire status. Or possibly, in a rare move for a senior jurist, a return to practicing law. "There have been some indications there'd be some market for me," he said, at major firms in both Richmond and Washington.

To keep all aboveboard, according to Merhige, he has hired an executive headhunter to handle the inquiries until he has left the bench -- if he does, in fact, elect to leave.

With a hectic travel schedule, including "14 grueling weeks" presiding over a civil trial involving the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, the judge said he has had scant time this year to make his final decision.

Merhige's dignified third-floor chambers here are cool and quiet, equipped with a working gas fireplace and decorated with a vast collection of photographs and memorabilia from his 1967 appointment by President Johnson and before. A copy of President Nixon's resignation adorns the mantlepiece.

"I wanted that since the day he was inaugurated," Merhige said.

He proudly shows off the adjacent wood-paneled, historic courtroom, hung with oil portraits of his predecessors. In the lineup is a jurist who served as both a Union and Confederate judge. "Guy never missed a paycheck," Merhige mutttered.

There was a day when these surroundings were less serene.

In his first five turbulent years on the bench, from 1967 to 1972, Merhige attracted national attention -- and outrage from opponents -- with a headline-making series of rulings that seemed to stand tradition-bound Virginia on its head.

He freed (and later jailed) black militant H. Rap Brown. He desegregated the state's prisons and then its jails. He forced major reforms in inmates' rights. He opened the University of Virginia to women. He threw out the state's policy of forcing teachers to take unpaid maternity leave at four months' pregnancy. He made available a Richmond war memorial building for an antiwar rally. And, in the biggest flap of his career, he ordered Richmond's heavily black school system merged with the city's mostly white suburbs to achieve racial integration through busing.

The busing decision was overturned by a federal appeals court, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on a 4-to-4 tie vote, with Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a former member of the Richmond School Board, abstaining.

The school case, which drew thousands of white protesters into the city's streets crying for Merhige's impeachment, firmly established the judge's reputation as a liberal and an activist -- an instrument of unwanted change.

Take a few other Merhige rulings together with the Richmond busing case, said University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard, "and you have a trial court's William O. Douglas."

"I knew the label was there," Merhige said, "but I don't know the meaning of labels . . . . Along the line the thought came to me, 'You're doing what the Constitution says.' I suppose there was a period of time when people were very unhappy that I was the one appointed.

"I always thought that was kind of dumb, to be frank with you. You either do what the law says or you were reversed [by appellate courts]. I've taken solace in that over the years. I had some 40 school cases and one reversal. I've gotta stop and think, 'What were they screaming about?' They took it as far as they could go. The public isn't entitled to any more."

But he concedes there were "rough times." His dog was shot. His guest house was burned down. He was often under heavy guard by U.S. marshals. "The busing issue was explosive," said Richmond lawyer Mathew Ott, Merhige's former law clerk, "and he stepped into it with both feet."

The judge was most concerned, Ott said, with the safety of his family. "He just didn't think it was fair." For a time, Merhige stopped reading local newspapers and his mail.

At the marshals' suggestion, he took to leaving a pebble on the hood of his car overnight as a safeguard against bombs, but gave it up. "I found I was scaring myself to death," he told a reporter at the time. He started leaving pebbles on his law clerks' cars as a joke.

A Washington lawyer who knows Merhige well said the judge told him, in jest, that he had started sending his wife out to start the car in the morning.

"I have a sense that he was willing to be an activist but didn't seek the role," said U-Va.'s Howard. "I don't see him as having a bold appetite for activism. But once those cases were before him, he did not shrink from solving a problem."

"It was very popular to take [verbal] shots at him," said Ott. "I've stood at social occasions in Richmond and heard him ripped up one side and down the other." But, the former law clerk added, "He didn't walk up Main Street and look for explosive cases. They came to him."

Philip Hirschkop, an Alexandria lawyer and a founder of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed. "He would get the tough cases. You went to Richmond to seek out Merhige." To the ACLU, said Hirschkop, Merhige was an island of civil libertarianism in a sea of conservative state and federal judges.

"He's an autocratic judge and I don't mean that in a negative way," Hirschkop added. "He's very, very strict on protocol." But Hirschkop said he admired the way Merhige, "a very super patriotic guy," grew more lenient in sentencing draft dodgers as the Vietnam War progressed.

"His human side overcame his dogmatism about patriotism," the lawyer said.

"The good, solid, productive part about Merhige," said a Washington lawyer and friend, "is he's a good trial judge, he moves the cases along. On the high-visibility social-political cases his record is open to debate -- whether busing made things better or worse, whether he went too far. But they were indications of his willingness to take the heat."

Taking the heat -- and the accompanying publicity -- are hallmarks of the Merhige style, according to many. "He's known to have an ego," said Ott. "But there are few shrinking violets on the federal bench."

"Being on the bench probably magnified his personality," said another attorney. "He likes publicity and notoriety . . . . If you look at his background, it's all there. He pushes everything to its limits in his use of the power and influence of the judiciary."

"My cases have been controversial," Merhige said with a shrug. "I thought that's what courts were for."

When Lyndon Johnson offered the judgeship, Merhige said, his father, a Long Island rug merchant of Lebanese descent, advised him to grab the lifetime appointment. "Take the job. You'll live forever," his father told him. Years later, Merhige's father read that his son might be in line for a federal appeals court position. "Take the job," he said. "You'll live forever."

"Look," Merhige said, "the last time you told me to take the job, I'll live forever, I had marshals with rifles in my back yard the next day. If I need your advice, I'll ask for it."

Reared in Merrick, N.Y., Merhige, who stands about 5 feet 8, attended High Point College in North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. He worked his way through law school at the University of Richmond, coaching prep school football, sweeping the law school basement, acting as school librarian and hitchhiking to Newport News on weekends to work as a plumber's helper.

A C student as an undergraduate, he blossomed at law school. "I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I can't tell you why," he said. "The study of law intrigued me so. It sounds corny, but I used to go to bed and say, 'Thank you, God, for getting me here.' "

In his second year, he passed the Virginia bar. Then he went to war. He served as a crewman on a B17 bomber based in Foggia, Italy. "It was no place for a guy who could read and write -- that's how I describe [combat]," he said. "We hit Berlin. Salzburg. We hit Vienna so many times I felt like a commuter."

Offered a flight home from Europe after the war, he took a ship. "I'd used up my luck" with airplanes.

In Richmond, Merhige was offered a job with a law firm at $120 a month, provided he brought in $360 a month from clients. The first year, he helped a client win $45,000 in a personal injury case and he took home $17,000. "I was lucky," he said. "I've been lucky since."

Eventually, Merhige joined a legendary local criminal defense lawyer, Leith Bremner, and gradually developed a reputation as something of a legend himself. "He was the best criminal lawyer in the state," said Hirschkop. "If there was a big, tough, white-collar [crime] case, chances are you'd see Bob Merhige's name on it."

He invested his money in real estate, including some of his first $17,000. "Never the stock market, never a business. Just land," he said. It made him a millionaire. He sold some of his holdings after going on the bench, but not before a Washington area business partner, Ralph D. Rocks, was convicted in 1972 of bribing a former Maryland politician.

Merhige, whose properties were not involved in the Rocks case, made public a list of assets owned jointly by the two men.

He sold the last of his apartment complexes a year ago, he said, leaving his finances unusually liquid just as he ponders what to do next with his life.

"I think he commands a lot of respect these days," said Howard. "He gets law clerk applications nationally, which you can't say of every district judge. It seems to me he can write his own ticket."