In an unpublicized tradition going back many years, the Justice Department's criminal division gives the White House legal advice around reelection time on what it can and cannot do in political areas. For example, federal criminal statutes bar soliciting government employes for money, promising federal jobs or contracts in return for money or votes, even using "work relief" to gain political support.

This year, the criminal division decided to offer the public the same sort of advisory service on a limited number of criminal provisions that relate to election-type activities. As laid out in the Oct. 23 Federal Register (page 70350), the purpose was "to foster compliance with what are essentially criminal laws. . . ."

Anyone in doubt about the law, or wanting a piece of paper from Justice saying whatever he or she plans to do is legal, may submit a request in writing outlining the situation and identifying "The principal on whose behalf" he or she is acting. The response will come back in writing, the Justice notice promises, except "when a substantive response under the circumstances would not be consistent with criminal law enforcement responsibilities. . . ." In short, no help is going to be given someone planning to violate the law.

The notice also says that prosecutors will take into consideration as "a mitigating factor" a claim that an activity later found to be illegal was covered by a favorable advisory opinion.

The advisory service was initially announced less than two weeks before Election Day -- "belatedly," a top Justice Department official sheepishly said last week. Even then it was not exactly shouted from the rooftops. Along with the Federal Register announcement, notices were sent to the Federal Election Commission and the Merit System Protection Board. That was it.

Not surprisingly, according to a spokesman, no one sought an opinion. But the top Justice official was still hopeful last week that the advisory opinion service would be continued for all elections and that House and Senate members, as well as the candidates seeking their jobs, will learn to take advantage of it.