Of Judges . . .

April 30, 1995

"There is nobody above the law," according to Judge J. Frederick Motz, chief federal district judge in Maryland. We agree. U.S. Magistrate Judge James E. Kenkel doesn't seem to, PTC though. Nor, apparently, do some senior officers of the Maryland State Police.

How else to explain the failure to punish, one way or another, Judge Kenkel's unacceptable conduct while driving last January? Letting him get away with failure to stop for a police officer and using a siren while fleeing into a limited-access garage is privileged treatment, pure and simple. It would not have been granted to an ordinary citizen, and even less should it have been accorded to a judge, who certainly ought to know better.

This case poses two separate issues of unequal treatment under the law. One is the failure by state police to cite Judge Kenkel for what seems to have been several traffic violations, including running a red light. The trooper who followed Judge Kenkel right to the federal court house in Greenbelt says he was more concerned about the illegal siren than he was about the short chase. No ticket was issued, nor was a report filed.

One senior officer said it was decided to handle the matter "administratively." Lt. Col. James Harvey, the second in command, said the state police's "concern in enforcing the law is to make sure they do not continue to violate the law." Doesn't matter what you've done, just don't do it again. Somehow we find it hard to visualize a private citizen getting away with that argument if pulled over by one of Colonel Harvey's troopers.

Of greater concern to the public is Judge Kenkel's behavior and the failure of his superiors to apply more than a slap on the wrist. Federal magistrates -- similar to district court judges in the state judiciary -- help try criminal matters. Their jurisdiction has, in fact, been considerably enlarged in recent years. They need to have judicial temperment -- a crucial quality in a judge -- every bit as much as jurists in higher courts.

What was Judge Kenkel doing with a siren under his car's hood? Playing cop? A defendant would have reasonable grounds for concern about facing a judge who fantasizes that way. Coupled with his bad judgment in running a red light, the judge's failure to stop for a police officer and his flight into federal sanctuary raise serious questions about his fitness for the bench. Judge Motz and his colleagues wouldn't behave that way, and they should not tolerate such behavior in a subordinate.

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