JUDGE HARRY CLAIBORNE is in prison. Not on a visit or an inspection tour, not checking up on the felons he has sentenced. He is an inmate at a federal facility in Alabama, serving a two-year sentence for tax evasion. But he is different from his fellow prisoners in important ways. He's still called "your honor," for example. He expects to have his old job waiting for him when he gets out. And each month, he gets a nice check from the government. It amounts to $78,000 a year.

The judge was convicted in August 1984 but only began serving his sentence on May 16 of this year, after all appeals had been exhausted. He is the first federal judge ever to go to prison and the first to have been convicted of an offense committed while on the bench. He also deserves a first for chutzpah, for in spite of this disgraceful record, he has refused to resign from his post. Federal judges have tenure for life, but quite understandably, no one ever expected that a question would arise about a judge who is convicted of a serious crime and refuses to resign. The only way this bad apple can be removed against his will is by impeachment.

Naturally, it's in Judge Claiborne's own interest to remain adamant and continue to bank his salary indefinitely. But he should not be able to get away with it. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has served notice that unless Judge Claiborne resigns by June 4, he will file a resolution in the House to begin impeachment proceedings. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has announced his support of the effort in the Senate. No one wants to have to go through with an impeachment. The process is cumbersome and slow, especially in the Senate, which would have to hold a trial. But if Judge Claiborne does not resign voluntarily, it must be done. His conviction has created a real vacancy on the district court in Nevada that should be filled, his claim to salary in the cellblock is outrageous, and the simple presence of a convicted felon on the federal bench is disgusting. If it takes action by both houses of Congress to get rid of him, let's have it.