IT'S A HALF-BAKED compromise, but a proposal to change the conditions under which circuit judges have to run for election in Maryland has won approval of the state Senate -- and it's better than nothing. There are still too many lawmakers in Annapolis who think judges should run head- to-head against any and all challengers, presumably grubbing for campaign money, making all sorts of questionable claims about how they will decide issues on the bench and hanging out at the county fairs to buttonhole voters. At first, there was a bill to stop all this by letting an incumbent judge be on the ballot, unopposed, in a retain-or-reject vote. But this sound formula was filibustered by senators who prefer to hold out the bench as some sort of political prize for lucky challengers.

At least the compromise would clean up the rules of the race a bit. One change would make the circuit-court judgeship contests nonpartisan. As it stands, the judges have to run in two-party primaries and, if they win at least one of these, run in a general election. And instead of making judges run in the year following their appointment by the governor and again 15 years later, the compromise would give them four years on the bench after appointment and then require an election. Then, 10 years after that, they would run again -- only on their records and not against opponents.

That at least would establish the "sitting judge" principle of voting on a judge's qualifications and performance, even though it would not be until the second time around for the judge. And in the first round, at least there would be four years in which to establish a record before having to hit the campaign trail.

So, even though House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens of Montgomery County has said the compromise "doesn't make sense," it does represent an improvement over the status quo. House committee members who recognize this should find more comfort in voting for some improvement than in holding out for retention of a grubby process that debases the circuit bench in Maryland.