DEATH PENALTY appeals are among the most complex areas of American jurisprudence, an arcane, exquisitely detailed and often convoluted specialty that can confound even experienced lawyers. The federal court system, which handles habeas corpus petitions in death row cases, makes significant efforts to find and attract attorneys who are qualified to argue these cases -- cases on which life and death hinge quite literally. The presence of able attorneys in these cases promotes the cause of justice; there is honor in the work, whether it is undertaken by advocates or foes of capital punishment. Yet Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, would have us believe that any lawyer who represents a death row inmate should be disqualified from public office.

That's the thrust of Mr. Kilgore's contemptible assault on Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate. Mr. Kaine's record as a defense attorney includes three death row cases. In addition to the Kilgore campaign's incendiary TV ads, in which the relatives of murder victims condemn Mr. Kaine for his long-standing opposition to capital punishment, Mr. Kilgore slammed the Democrat last week as an "authority" on death sentence appeals. "He tried to get a cold-blooded killer off death row!" Mr. Kilgore exclaimed the other day. Well, yes, that's what defense lawyers in those cases do -- Republicans as well as Democrats. Among the prominent Republicans who have handled or assisted in death row appeals are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, dean of Pepperdine University's law school; and Miguel A. Estrada, President Bush's unsuccessful nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Mr. Kilgore, Virginia's former attorney general, was the state's top law enforcement official; he of all people understands perfectly well the critical importance of competent counsel in difficult cases. But the Kilgore campaign, in its end game, has resorted to a hatchet job, exemplified by artfully produced TV ads that conflate and condemn Mr. Kaine's personal objections to the death penalty with his legal work on death row cases. The ads are a low moment in Virginia politics, and in Mr. Kilgore's otherwise solid career in public service.