Volatile city judge backed for 2nd term Outspoken Johnson, Byrnes renominated by judicial panel

September 23, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The city's nominating commission for Circuit Court judges yesterday recommended Baltimore Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson for reappointment to the bench, despite a series of allegations that the 60-year-old judge had a record of intemperate behavior in court.

Johnson, a controversial judge who won his seat by out polling appointed incumbents in 1982, has been under fire for his actions in a number of cases, four of which also are being investigated by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

The nominating commission also recommended Circuit Court Judge John Carroll Byrnes for reappointment yesterday.

The 13-member commission, made up of seven lawyers and six nonlawyers, meets and votes in private. Members contacted yesterday refused comment on their decisions, which have been forwarded to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. An official announcement of the two nominations is to come today, along with the list of an existing pool of judicial candidates the commission also has found qualified for both positions.

But sources involved in the process confirmed the two renominations yesterday, the same day the judges met with the commission to discuss their qualifications and records. Both Byrnes and Johnson declined comment when called about the renominations.

The judicial disabilities complaints against Johnson included several cases in which the judge held defendants and lawyers in contempt of court. A number of other Johnson rulings forwarded to the commission had been reversed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which in several instances noted that the judge had wielded the power of contempt inappropriately.

In response to the disabilities commission, Johnson admitted he was wrong in some instances, though he defended his overall career as honorable. A legion of supporters from the legal community wrote to the nominating commission to urge his renomination.

In one case the nominating commission reviewed, Johnson issued 10 contempt citations against a defendant who had cursed and spit on him.

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." Johnson later acknowledged in writing that the comment was inappropriate and made in an attempt to "quell the situation."

In another case, Johnson sent the father of a murder defendant to jail overnight after the father exclaimed "Oh, no," in the courtroom when his son was convicted. Johnson wrote to the disabilities commission that the man's family had been disrupting the trial for days -- creating a volatile situation -- and jTC that he held the man in jail to protect the jurors who had rendered the guilty verdict.

Byrnes, 58, also faced some questions, about his handling of domestic cases. A poll commissioned by the judge found he was sometimes frustrated with his idealism about reuniting families torn irrevocably apart, although the poll of lawyers also praised his courtroom demeanor and concern for litigants. The judge asked an attorney to do the informal poll to find out what the criticisms were and included the results in his application for reappointment.

Glendening now has the task of choosing whether to accept the recommendation to reappoint the judges to temporary terms until the next general judicial elections are held in November 1998. The judges are required to win ratification from the voters for 15-year terms.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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