The Senate Judiciary Committee will finally resume its hearings today on the nomination of Edwin Meese to be attorney general. Opponents and proponents of Meese have had their last crack at attempting to influence the senators in advance. And it's a good thing the preliminaries are finished, because over the weekend the level of debate on the issue sank to a new low.

You may remember that back in March 1984, the controversy over Meese's appointment began as a "scandal" on the Watergate model: That is, Meese's adversaries brought up suspicious circumstances that they claimed indicated he might have committed crimes. There was even a "dirty tricks" component of the attack: Meese was accued of somehow participating in the theft of Jimmy Carter's debate documents during the presidential campaign of 1980.

The U.S. government, with Meese's full cooperation, went to monumental lengths to set up an independent counsel's investigation of these charges and to make the investigation work. The counsel's final verdict was that no basis existed for any criminal charges, for a crucial reason: There was not a shred of evidence that Meese had ever had the slightest intention of doing what his opponents had been accusing him of, which was selling government appointments in return for personal financial favors; nor was he implicated in any other of the allegations.

Before this investigation, people might have been forgiven for questioning the Meese nomination because of stories that "looked bad"; in fact, appearances are important and not always deceiving. But once the investigative report showed the facts and that there was neither motive nor wrongdoing on Meese's part, it was no longer reasonable to keep pointing to the appearances instead of the realities of Meese's record, which was that of a man particularly well qualified for the office of attorney general by a long and honorable career in law enforcement and public service. No wonder it was widely thought that the report would facilitate Meese's confirmation.

But not everyone who read the news of the independent counsel's report was an honest doubter on the issue of Ed Meese. Some of the readers were dyed-in-the-wool enemies of his and his president's policies. Needless to say, such people were not about to give up their fight against Meese. But, just as naturally, they were not about to admit that they objected to him on straightforward partisan grounds. They would continue to insist they were applying only "ethical" standards.

The assertions of criminality had failed, so the adversaries moved to a new level of argument. They started claiming that the independent counsel's report, while exonerating Meese of crimes, had shown him engaging in ethical conduct that made him unfit to be attorney general. The Common Cause organization unveiled this approach last month as part of a massive anti-Meese lobbying campaign, complete with its own "report," mailings, brochures and full-page advertisements. Last weekend, Archibald Cox, chairman of Common Cause, was given generous space in The Post's Outlook section to continue the organization's argument.

Here is how the Cox brief goes: It claims that while the independent counsel's report found Edwin Meese not guilty of crimes, it showed him guilty of unethical behavior in a number of instances. But in each instance Cox lists, he omits or misstates findings from the independent counsel's report that are crucial to a discussion of ethical questions.

For example, Cox states that Meese "joined others" on a personnel committee in recommending a job for a Thomas Barrack, and criticizes Meese for not telling the personnel committee of "the financial help" he had received from Barrack in the sale of the Meese's California house.

The truth is the independent counsel explicitly found that there was "no evidence" Meese was aware of Barrack's financial involvement in the sale. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Meese did not "disclose" this fact to others when Barrack was getting his job, particularly since the counsel also found Meese did not help Barrack secure any federal position.

Another Cox example: Cox says Meese got a loan from a John McKean "to relieve Meese's financial distress," that "McKean wrote Meese soliciting his help" regarding a longer term on the Postal Service Board of Governors, and that Meese was on the personnel committee in charge of the appointment but never "disclosed" his relationship with McKean.

Cox omits the independent counsel's findings that the loan was arm's length and market-justified -- in other words, without special favors -- and that the "investigation uncovered no evidence that Meese spoke to anyone or took any action to assist McKean in obtaining a longer term."

Another Cox example: Ursula Meese got an interest-free loan from the Meeses' close friend, Edwin Thomas, and "Thomas went to work under Meese" in the White House.

Cox neglects to mention that Thomas hardly needed an interest-free loan to get himself a job with Meese, since -- again, as the report recognized but Cox does not tell us -- Thomas had been working for Meese for years.

Another Cox example: Having "received forbearance on monthly payments" on a loan from the Great American First Savings Bank of San Diego, Meese "participated in decisions" giving government jobs to bank officers "without disclosing the danger of conflicting interests."

Cox leaves out the independent counsel's findings that "the bank's handling of the Meese transactions . . . was similar to its dealings with other customers," and that none of the persons involved in the bank's decisions was later appointed to the government.

Cox goes on to compare Meese's actions to Sherman Adams' taking the vicuna coat and other gifts from Bernard Goldfine while major federal investigations were in process, and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas' accepting a present of $20,000 from Louis Wolfson, who was later indicted and convicted. If you believed Cox's characterization of the Meese transactions, the analogies would not seem as farfetched and unfair as they obviously are.

Such is the notion of fairness underlying Cox's lofty assertion that not everything legal is permissible in high government officials. Well, of course, none of us would argue with that. But Meese is not guilty of Cox's charges of unethical behavior any more than he was guilty of the crimes his adversaries dreamed up last year. In fact, it is Cox, by his misleading presentation of the facts, who has put himself in danger of having committed one of the greatest of ethical sins: character assassination. Any reader of history knows that this sort of corruption is one of the truly great dangers to the long-term health of democracy.