After four years in the White House, Edwin Meese III moved into the attorney general's office in February 1985, determined to broaden the legal significance of the Reagan revolution. Two-and-a-half years later, major parts of the Meese agenda -- in civil rights, law enforcement, antitrust policy and constitutional law -- have faltered on Capitol Hill, in the Supreme Court and even within the Reagan administration.

With a more confrontational style than his predecessor, William French Smith, Meese set out to curtail affirmative action, revive the death penalty for federal crimes, ease restrictions on the use of illegally seized evidence, scale back police warnings to suspects, limit prisoners' appeals, curb the right to abortion, reduce challenges to corporate mergers and narrow judicial interpretations of the Bill of Rights. On almost none of these has Meese had significant success in making changes that will outlast his tenure.

Nevertheless, critics and supporters agree that Meese has left a mark. His impact in one critical sphere -- lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary -- will reverberate long after he is gone. And if the Senate confirms U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork to succeed Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who was the key swing vote on such issues as affirmative action and abortion, much of what Meese has failed to accomplish may suddenly be within reach.

The department has already left enduring marks by persuading the court to expand police powers and by waging a highly visible war on drug trafficking. Even in civil rights, where he has suffered repeated legal setbacks, the attorney general has helped alter the way many people think about affirmative action and reverse discrimination.

"Meese has moved the center of gravity of the debate substantially to the right," said Anthony T. Podesta, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group, who is a frequent Meese critic. "He has made us argue on his terms. We're sitting around arguing whether the Bill of Rights applies to the states." Meese has questioned whether it does, challenging 60 years of settled court rulings.

But with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and a presidential campaign approaching, time has practically run out on Meese's hopes of transforming more of his rhetoric into reality.

Any attorney general has limited ability to impose his agenda on future administrations, but some have changed the nation by changing the law. The Johnson administration, for example, pushed through civil rights laws that permanently reshaped American society. The Nixon administration introduced sweeping new environmental laws whose effects have endured. But at this point -- beleaguered by his own legal problems in the Wedtech case and the Iran-contra affair -- Meese's prospects for leaving such an enduring legacy seem small.

"In a strange way, none of the changes he's made are permanent, except for the people he's put on the court," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a 1988 presidential candidate.

"Meese's mistakes and misdeeds have been so stark that it's opened up the entire middle," Biden said. "Things are ripe for movement in a number of areas he has botched. The next president will benefit from the backlash."Civil Rights

Nowhere has there been a wider gap between the Justice Department's goals and results than on civil rights. Meese's spokesman, Terry Eastland, calls it a case of "missed opportunities."

"In retrospect, it is clear that we did not have at the White House a coherent civil rights strategy, one that sought to employ all the instruments of legal challenge," Eastland said.

For 6 1/2 years, Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds has attacked minority hiring goals as thinly veiled race and sex quotas that are both unconstitutional and insulting to minorities. In the Meese-Reynolds view, only specific victims of discrimination, not broad classes of people, are entitled to special favorable treatment.

But the Supreme Court has repeatedly disagreed in upholding five affirmative-action plans over the last year. It has sanctioned promotion plans for women and minorities without evidence of prior discrimination against the individuals or groups involved, and has authorized numerical hiring targets when there is a history of extreme bias. (In many of these cases, Powell cast the key vote in 5-to-4 rulings that could be undone if Bork is confirmed.)

During President Reagan's first term, said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "The right controlled the rhetoric. The principal victim of discrimination in the 1980s was seen as the white male . . . . There was a perception among some that we had gone far enough."

The Justice Department's first efforts to enforce that view proved counterproductive. In the Bob Jones University case, the department argued against ending tax exemptions for segregated schools, provoking outrage even from many Republican allies. In subsequent battles over voting rights and the Civil Rights Commission, the department sought to portray its critics as unreconstructed advocates of "busing" and "quotas."

The debate changed in the summer of 1985, when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a promotion for Reynolds after a contentious debate that focused on voting rights enforcement and the nominee's candor. Meese and Reynolds also pressed Reagan to change a 20-year-old executive order on minority hiring goals for federal contractors, triggering opposition from industry, Congress and part of Reagan's Cabinet.

Despite these setbacks, Drew S. Days III, who held Reynolds' job in the Carter administration, said the Justice Department "has dampened the commitment of more than a few people toward voluntary efforts {on affirmative action}. It's created the impression that all bets are off, there's no pressure, you don't have to do anything. It's harder to convince middle managements to seek out minorities and women.

"The drumbeat of the administration, about it being unfair to use race or sex as the criteria and how it would produce a lot of incompetence in jobs, has really put people on the defensive," said Days, now a Yale University professor. He said it would take years "just to go back to where we were before the Reagan administration came in."Law Enforcement

The Justice Department has had far more success in persuading the courts to give police more discretion to seize evidence, obtain confessions and hold suspects without bail. Even here, however, its track record has not matched its rhetoric on such issues as eliminating "Miranda" warnings by police.

Paul D. Kamenar, executive legal director of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, credited the department with successfully pushing a 1984 revision of the criminal code and last year's antidrug bill. "They have gotten a good amount of what they set out to do," Kamenar said.

Particularly under Smith, the Justice Department has won a series of Supreme Court rulings that carved out "good-faith" exceptions for police and their ability to use illegally seized evidence. By taking a measured approach, the department has loosened the court's definitions of the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on search and seizure by law enforcement agencies.

But Meese's more extreme proposals -- reviving the death penalty, cutting back on prisoners' appeal rights and abolishing the Miranda requirement that police read suspects their rights -- have gone nowhere. In fact, lawmakers of both parties specifically excluded these issues when they passed the 1984 crime control act, which among other things increased the use of preventive detention.

Meese has continued to denounce the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda ruling at every opportunity, but has yet to find a legal vehicle to attack it. He also lauded the controversial findings of his antipornography commission, but failed to win significant changes in obscenity laws.

One of Meese's few successes on Capitol Hill came when he joined the National Rifle Association's push to relax gun-control laws, an initiative that also alienated many law enforcement groups.

The centerpiece of the administration's law-and-order campaign has been its war on drugs, which Meese has promoted with a constant barrage of publicity.

Philip Heymann, who ran the department's Criminal Division in the Carter administration, said his successors are adept at exploiting the crime issue for political benefit. Although the Reagan administration has boosted spending on drug enforcement by billions of dollars, he noted, higher quality and cheaper cocaine is more available than ever before.

Still, many observers agree that the department has broken important new prosecutorial ground. Led by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, it has won a string of insider-trading convictions against Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine and other pillars of the Wall Street investment community.

And, for the first time, the department has successfully prosecuted top Mafia leaders in New York, including members of the Gambino and Bonanno crime families.

"Ten years ago people were arguing whether there was a Mafia," Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott said last fall. "Now we've got the SOBs on tape and in courts all over the country."

One reason for this performance is that the Criminal Division and the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices have been remarkably immune to shifting political winds. Most continue to be headed by career prosecutors and to bring the kind of cases that were prosecuted in the Nixon, Ford and Carter years.

But the department's record on white-collar crime cases, particularly involving defense contractors, has been less impressive. Justice's announcement last month that it was dropping fraud charges against General Dynamics Corp. over the Divad antiaircraft gun -- and that the indictment was "wrong" and should never have been brought -- was one of its biggest embarrassments in years.

That aborted prosecution came weeks after Justice closed a three-year probe of General Dynamics submarine contracts, prompting sharp criticism from members of Congress. While it is true that few defense-fraud cases were brought before 1981, and that the Justice Department has prosecuted such contractors as General Electric and Rockwell International, the closing of these high-profile cases provoked criticism that the administration has not been aggressive enough in combating defense fraud.

Similar criticism surrounded the department's handling of the E.F. Hutton check-kiting case, in which the company was fined $2 million but no individuals were charged.

There have been other embarrassments, such as the fraud indictment of Teamsters President Jackie Presser, which was dropped and later resurrected after an FBI agent was charged with lying to investigators to protect Presser.

Justice has also set an unwanted record of sorts. Meese's actions in both the Wedtech case and the Iran-contra affair are being scrutinized by separate independent counsels. The government's chief ethics officer has found that Meese failed to comply with the law when he created a limited "blind trust" with a man deeply involved with the Wedtech Corp., which Meese had aided while he was in the White House. A third independent prosecutor is probing the personal finances of a former assistant attorney general, and a fourth is examining alleged false testimony by another former assistant attorney general.Constitutional Law

In 1985, Meese told the American Bar Association that the Founding Fathers would have found recent Supreme Court rulings "somewhat bizarre." Meese said the court may have improperly applied the Bill of Rights to the states over the last 60 years, in part by misusing the First Amendment to "undermine religion."

Conservatives have hailed Meese's argument that the Constitution must be interpreted according to the "original intent" of its framers, while liberals have accused him of trying to erase decades of settled law. But some scholars play down the significance of the debate.

"The Department of Justice itself doesn't follow that {original intent} maxim," said Duke University law Prof. Walter Dellinger. "When the department defends an exercise of presidential power, they refer to text, history and prior precedents . . . . They don't limit themselves to powers that were contemplated for the president in 1787."

When Meese has taken his social agenda to court, he has generally lost. In 1985, the legal community was stunned when Solicitor General Charles Fried urged the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, since the department traditionally shies away from urging such an about-face. The court refused.

Justice has also lost a spate of church-state cases, failing to convince the court, for example, that a religiously motivated "moment of silence" should be allowed in Alabama public schools.

Meese surprised legal experts again last fall when he said that Supreme Court rulings need not be considered as the "supreme law of the land" and are "not binding in the same way that the Constitution is."

In the controversy that followed, Meese quickly backed off, saying his remarks had been misinterpreted.Antitrust

The department has also made a sharp right turn on antitrust enforcement, while again failing to persuade Congress or the courts to sanction its laissez-faire approach to corporate mergers.

Since William F. Baxter took over the Antitrust Division in 1981 with a pledge to "turn back the clock," the department has steered away from challenging large corporate mergers and refused to prosecute vertical price-fixing by manufacturers and distributors.

Ironically, it was Baxter who engineered the largest divestiture in U.S. history, the breakup of the Bell telephone system, after inheriting the 13-year-old case. Also, Baxter and his successors have won praise for prosecutions of bid-rigging firms.Judges

There is little question that the Justice Department has put an indelible conservative stamp on the federal judiciary that will last well into the 21st century.

On advice from Meese and Smith, Reagan has already appointed more than 300 persons to the bench. By the end of next year he will have named more than half of the nation's 744 federal judges, and three justices of the Supreme Court.

The department's insistence that Reagan's judicial nominees strictly adhere to conservative philosophy has sparked backstage battles with some moderate Republican senators whose district court candidates have been blocked. Justice has also drawn Democratic fire for putting forth nominees who are overwhelmingly white and male; only a half-dozen have been black.

Liberal opponents shudder when they consider this part of the Meese legacy. Said Podesta: "We'll still be hearing from Ed Meese long after the special prosecutors that are investigating him have left the scene."