IT IS NO SURPRISE that Congress is moving this summer to provide the federal courts with the amount of judicial help they need. A Democrat is now in the White House and federal judgeships are among the most prized of political appointments. So, within a few weeks, it is likely that President Carter will have an opportunity to appoint more judges to the bench at one time than any other President in history.

The need for these new judgeships is clear. Some of the 148 that the Senate has already approved and the House has under consideration were needed as long ago as 1972. Late that year, the Judicial Conference asked Congress for 51 new judgeships . Since then, the request has been renewed every few months, growing in size as the business and backlog of the courts became greater. But Congress set the requests aside each year, forcing a reduction in the quality and speed of justice as it waited for a presidential election to go by. The need for so large an increase this year - 36 per cent more judges for the circuit courts and 29 per cent more for the district courts - underlines the neglect of the recent past. If the House fails to go along with the Senate in providing this major increase in judicial personnel, the administration of justice will be critically overburdened.

So we hope the Congress will approve the new judgeships. And we also hope that President Carter and Attorney General Bell will be sensitive to the challenge that this opportunity will present to them. They have promised to make judicial nominations on the basis of merit, not politics, although the Attorney General tempered that promise a bit after encountering resistance on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, if the numbers approved by the Senate hold up, the administration will have 36 new circuit judges to pick (12 of them in the West and 11 in the South). These are judgeships on which the rule of senatorial courtesy is not so strong and on which Mr. Bell has said the President will use judicial nominating commissions. Given the number of judges to be picked, this will provide an opportunity to demonstrate that such commissions can help to improve their quality. That is important, not only because it would crate an impetus for using them to help select district judges as well, but also because the questions of competence and quality are all the more important any time a President is selecting at one time so large a percentage of all the federal judges.