VOTERS IN Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties should beware of trick questions on their ballots. Thanks to a terrible system that subjects circuit judges to election challenges by "candidates" with scant qualifications, voters may be easily confused and wind up unintentionally removing a sitting judge who has undergone a thorough vetting before going on the bench. The names of the judges and any challengers appear in one alphabetical list on the ballot, with no indication of who is a judge and who is not. In Montgomery, four judges and one challenger are on the ballot; the top four vote-getters win. In Anne Arundel, three judges are listed along with three challengers; the top three vote-getters win.

How challengers get on the November ballots can be weird; most of them run against the judges in a Democratic or Republican primary, or both; a top vote-getter in either one goes on to the general election. Then there's a slinkier way: The lone challenger in Montgomery this time became a Libertarian long enough to claim a party nomination and thus get directly on the November ballot. His Web site says he was "nominated for the Circuit Court" but makes no mention of the party.

In Maryland, the governor appoints judges from a list submitted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. A judge then must "run" in the next election to secure a 15-year term. Certainly the record of any judge should be open to scrutiny, and in other jurisdictions, there are workable processes for discipline or review by ballot, such as votes to retain or reject. But the Maryland system allows challengers to tar judges with irresponsible charges while the judges are constrained by the judicial code of ethics and must be prudent in responding. It is a messy procedure that ought to be ended.

In the meantime, the best response by voters is to protect the integrity of the bench by voting to retain the sitting judges, who all have undergone exhaustive reviews and interviews by bar associations and interested citizens before being selected.

Thus in Montgomery we endorse the four judges, all backed by the state bar associa- tion and major elected officials, from the governor to the county executive and county council. On the ballot listings, they are the top two and bottom two names: Marielsa A. Bernard, David A. Boynton, Dennis Michael McHugh and Katherine Savage.

In Anne Arundel, the three judges -- in ballot positions 2, 5 and 6 -- are David S. Bruce, Michele D. Jaklitsch and Rodney C. Warren.