MARYLAND Governor William Donald Schaefer seems to be tiptoeing into next month's legislative session with a modest agenda: improvements in the Port of Baltimore, a crackdown on bad doctors, more money to woo businesses to the state and more day care. Proposals that won't or shouldn't go over all that well include a restructuring of higher education -- this one needs more work -- and a revival of a plan rejected last year to limit the liability of corporate directors and extend the protection to company officers. As always, price tags will determine each legislative hit or miss.

Even with this sketchy work sheet, Gov. Schaefer already has succeeded in angering more than a few of the legislators who will be gathering in Annapolis to greet his agenda. His announcement that he no longer supports efforts to remove restrictions on abortion financing has prompted talk of a possible battle to seek new state money for abortions.

It shouldn't, but one of the plans most likely to spark legislative fire is a perfectly sound, long-overdue proposal to change the way circuit court judges are selected. Currently they are appointed by the governor from lists supplied by judicial nominating committees, and the judges then must run in the next general election. Gov. Schaefer would remove them from this rough-and-tumble -- a change long urged by many of the state's judges, lawyers and anybody who is uncomfortable with the fund-raising and appealing for votes that a judge must orchestrate to return to the bench. Mr. Schaefer's proposal would replace elections with retention elections, in which judges are appointed and then run for reelection on the basis of their records -- not against other candidates.

Much of the opposition has come from a coalition of black, Republican and rural lawmakers who interpret the plan as an attempt to diminish what political powers they have. But no matter what the race, partisan affiliation or home town of an appointed judge may be, the judicial record and integrity of the appointee should be what voters assess. As Robert Douglas, the governor's press secretary, has noted, "You do not want men and women who sit in judgment on the community dependent on the community for financial support. You don't want judges sitting in judgment on their contributors." That process is all wrong -- and Mr. Schaefer's proposal would clean it up.