Eleanor Holmes Norton shouldn't be pilloried for what her husband did. Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a leading force for justice for women, minorities and the poor -- and for the civil liberties of all. No less than anyone else in this country, she too is entitled to justice -- which of late she has not received. Instead, she has been pilloried by The Post and others for the faults of her husband in a guilt-by-association manner.

She is entitled to be judged on the facts, not on perceptions -- those pallid substitutes this city so often uses for reason and reality. What the facts tell us is quite simple: Eleanor Holmes Norton trusted her husband and was misled by him.

Rather than sympathize with her in this tragic situation, many have chosen to censure her, as though it were some moral error that she lived with her husband in the manner prescribed by most religions, in a spirit of faith and trust. Would those who criticize her now argue that she should have lived her marriage in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, perhaps following her husband to the post office to ensure that their D.C. taxes were actually filed? Why in this instance are so many willing to blame the victim?

Even the Internal Revenue Service recognizes the possibility that a spouse may not be culpable in a tax matter and has an innocent spouse rule. The Post has no such rule; it considers the faults of Edward Norton the faults of his wife as well. Even the IRS and the District government recognize by law that an individual's tax returns are a private matter. The Post has no similar respect of individual privacy, pleading a vague "right to know" that lacks either constitutional or ethical basis. Surely, if Mrs. Norton must release her tax returns, the editors and the publisher and the reporters of The Post should do likewise; they exercise far more public power than she ever will.

To the extent that she is held accountable, legally or politically, for her husband's failings, she faces an appendage of a primitive and barbaric time when women were considered a husband's chattel. To the extent that we separate the character of Norton from her husband, we recognize the right of women to be judged for their own virtues and faults.

Not only does Eleanor Holmes Norton's extraordinary record of service contradict the supposition that she willfully circumvented her civic duty, her reaction to the facts when revealed showed her true character -- a brave individual facing squarely life's cruelest twists. Within days she moved to clear up any liability she and her husband had to the city; she took far more responsibility for her husband's actions than some of us feel was necessary; and she took swift steps to ensure that the problem would not occur again. She repeatedly faced her critics in person -- in large groups and small, and did so with dignity and integrity.

Perhaps to a few all this does not matter; those who value their suspicions above what the facts tell them, those incapable of weighing this incident against the virtues of a quarter-century of public service. Yet there remains, even for them, the question: what is the alternative?

Would they, by virtue of their unhappiness over this affair, place the role of delegate in the hands of one whose only apparent service to the city is that he paid his taxes? Whose only apparent service to the government was as a hired agent of the Reagan assault on civil rights? Would they prefer that Norton withdraw and that her replacement be chosen by a small group of political operatives on the Democratic State Committee? Would they throw away the chance we have to restore the city's political status on Capitol Hill, to increase the federal payment, to strengthen home rule, all for the comfort of a perception -- and only a weak and misleading perception at that -- of propriety?

That would be a terrible bargain. I retain my faith in Eleanor Holmes Norton in the specifics of this matter, but ask even those who cannot share this faith to at least keep the good of the city foremost and vote for her anyway.

Sam Smith is editor of The Progressive Review.