ONE MIGHT EXPECT that five years into his investigation, Kenneth Starr's weariness with being an independent counsel might instill urgency in him about wrapping up his probe. But Mr. Starr's personal urge to disappear from public life does not seem to have adequately translated into a desire to have his investigation do the same. Mr. Starr is reportedly planning to quit before his investigation is completed. Meanwhile, the special court that oversees his investigation has split on the question of whether to terminate his investigation now. One of its judges suggested -- reasonably enough -- that if the independent counsel probe is to continue, Mr. Starr should offer the court some accounting of the work that remains.

It should be unnecessary to say that it is incumbent upon Mr. Starr to see his investigation through. He agreed to take this thing on. While he has taken an often unfair beating in the process, nobody ever promised him that investigating the president would be a picnic.

At this point, the workload that appears to remain before his office does not seem onerous. The office must complete its final reports, a job that should be possible to accomplish quickly if it does not seek to write exhaustive histories. Mr. Starr has stated that investigative work is continuing. If these matters are crucial, all the more reason Mr. Starr should stay; if not, they ought to be referred to the Justice Department -- an idea, incidentally, that Mr. Starr himself raised. The department has reportedly balked at the idea of such referrals, putting Mr. Starr in a somewhat awkward spot. But the law gives him, not the department, the power to decide what matters he needs to finish himself and what can be given back. The other matters on Mr. Starr's plate are a series of prosecution decisions -- the decision not to bring a case against President Clinton being the most important. These can and should be made expeditiously. If Mr. Starr were to complete his probe in a timely manner, there would be no need to contemplate a premature exit.

Talk of jumping ship, in fact, only invites the sort of skepticism that Judge Richard Cudahy displayed Wednesday in what would normally have been a routine decision to let an independent counsel probe continue. The judge dissented, voting to terminate the investigation now on the grounds that his colleagues would not ask Mr. Starr to provide "specific information . . . about further investigative activity that he could usefully undertake and which could not now properly be turned over to the Department of Justice." Without such information, he argued, there is "a strong case for termination." He's right, and his colleagues' contention that the special division's power to terminate an independent counsel is not accompanied by any power to ask a special prosecutor basic questions about the status of his investigation is incomprehensible. If Mr. Starr will not end this thing, he must at least justify its continuation. In any event, he must take responsibility for bringing it to a close.