UP UNTIL LATE MAY, the nation hadn't been paying a whole lot of attention to doings in the local court out in Dane County, Wis. But then Judge Archie Simonson sort of shook things up when he said a 15-year-old youth accused of sexual assault might have been reacting normally to moral permissiveness and provocative women's attire. The judge gave the youth a year of court supervision at home. The news immediately prompted a virgorous protest movement; more than 35,000 people signed petitions seeking the jjudge's removal and - as you probably have heard by now - he was defeated last week in a recall election.

The judge was entitled to his opinion, of course, and we needn't dwell on it here - for the reutns on that question are in. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with a recall referendum. For that matter, it's a part of the fine grass-roots democratic tradition of which Wisconsin is justly proud. What we've always found troubling in any jurisdiction is the business of head-to-head election campaigns between candidates for judgeships.

In this instance, the Judge Simonson affair blossomed into a six-way race. The victor was Moria Krueger, who ran a well-financed campaign and termed her success at the polls a case of people crying out for a "fair application of the law." Mrs Krueger won't have much time to demonstrate this, however, since she will have to seek re-election again next spring.

This sort of system is not the best way to attract well-qualified people to judicial office. For one thing, these campaigns - in which "platforms" are necessarily vague or impossibly specific - can easily degenerate into personal battles that demean the bench and do nothing to improve the application of the law. What's more, there is nothing terribly attractive about judges and challengers scrambling for campaign funds - which may either be hard to come by or may come from overly interested sources.

We continue to believe that a better system would be for voters to be asked only whether they wish a particular judge to be retained on the bench. If a judge were rejected, he or she would then be out of office. An appropriate panel of citizens could then recommend names to the governor, mayor or county officials responsible for appointing a new judge. That judge could then be subject to a routine recall referendum after, say, a year's service. Last year, the voters of Maryland approved a constitutional change along these lines, and thus eliminated the head-to-head, if-elected-I-promise contests for the state's two appellate courts. It's a trend we hope spreads to other benches around the nation.