Circuit judge under scrutiny Nominating panel set to determine Johnson's fitness

September 22, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In his 15 years on the Baltimore Circuit bench, Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson has thrown lawyers into the lockup the moment they speak out of turn; sparred with defendants like a school principal handing out demerits; and commissioned a "runaway" grand jury that prosecutors decried as irresponsible.

Now Johnson, 60, seeks a second term presiding over what has become known as one of Baltimore's more unpredictable courtrooms. When the city's judicial nominating commission for circuit judges meets today to determine whether Johnson is fit to stay on the bench, it will confront him with a number of cases his critics call questionable -- four of which also are being investigated by Maryland's Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

For years, the renomination of a sitting circuit judge was swift and routine. But the nominating commission, spurred by a gubernatorial charge to more actively review the fitness of judicial candidates, turned down city Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe for reappointment two years ago. While their vote was not public, commissioners said privately that they were troubled by Bothe's habit of interrupting during trials.

Circuit judges are elected in Maryland, so those who are not nominated and appointed by the governor may run against those who are. Bothe chose to retire rather than challenge her colleagues.

If Johnson or John Carroll Byrnes, the other sitting circuit judge up for renomination today, were to run without being appointed in next year's judicial election, what is often a pro forma ratification could become a serious race.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, the court's administrative judge, would rather not see the veteran judges have to run. With so many new judges joining the city bench, he said he needs experienced jurists to stay.

Of Johnson's problems, Kaplan said: "I think that, generally, he's a good judge. You're talking about over 15 years. Four or five instances where he made a mistake should not be enough to not reappoint him."

Allegations

But those seeking Johnson's ouster disagree. According to allegations in documents forwarded to members of the nominating commission:

The judge wrongly sent the father of a man convicted of murder to jail overnight in 1992 for loudly exclaiming, "Oh, no," when the jury issued its verdict.

Johnson lost his judicial demeanor when he engaged a profane defendant in an intemperate, lengthy conversation that ended with 10 contempt citations against the man in 1993. At one point, the judge replied to the defendant's threat to shoot him by saying: "Record should show that if I'd have had a shotgun I need to have shot him, but I don't have it today."

The judge acted improperly when he ordered a Baltimore attorney handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy after the lawyer tried to speak for his client during a probation violation hearing last year.

A Silver Spring man who owed child support said he was wrongly jailed last year by Johnson, whom he alleged "made a joke of my situation."

The nominating commission has been told of at least six other cases in which Johnson is said to have acted improperly. In five of them, Johnson's rulings have been reversed by the Court of Special Appeals.

Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article, noting the renomination process. But in lengthy responses provided to the nominating commission, the judge acknowledged that he erred in some cases. But he wrote -- as did a number of supporters -- that he has acted honorably throughout his career and that the complaints against him are not nearly serious enough to disqualify him.

Outside traditional lines

Johnson's career has flourished outside the traditional lines. As a young man, he protested discrimination at lunch-counter sit-ins in the South and became a civil rights lawyer. In Baltimore, he represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and won discrimination cases against Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the city's police and fire departments.

He won his seat on the court in 1982 without first being appointed, challenging the homogeneity of the bench. In the general election, Johnson outpolled sitting judges and challengers alike.

He often remarks that he is more at home with the alligators and snakes in the woods of his native Mississippi than with people he suspects are against him.

"The governor didn't appoint me," Johnson said from the bench during a confrontation with a lawyer. "The people sent me here."

In 1992, he issued a controversial charge to a city grand jury: Investigate why the state's attorney seemed to prosecute so many low-level drug cases while passing on higher-level dealers. The result was political and legal upheaval, as the grand jurors excoriated the city's police and prosecutors.

A former U.S. attorney called Johnson a "rogue" judge.

A father detained

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