Peace rules in city court Judicial renomination of Johnson, Byrnes brings sighs of relief

September 28, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin

It wasn't hard to hear the collective sigh of relief around Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse complex last week. Circuit Judges Kenneth Lavon Johnson and John Carroll Byrnes had been nominated for reappointment; Gov. Parris N. Glendening had rapidly capitulated by renaming them to the bench.

There was, as administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan put it, "peace in the valley."

To the courthouse's 30 "sitting judges," the nominations came as an enormous political boon. Perhaps more elementally, they brought as well the recognition that judges are not expected to be perfect, that there are exceptions to the notion that judges must act and sound the same - and can, within reason, even get away with the occasional display of temper.

It might not have turned out that way.

In the weeks before the two judges faced the 13-member nominating commission Monday, the phone calls and letters flew fast and furious.

Detractors produced an alleged record of intemperate behavior on Johnson's part, including several cases being investigated by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities. Domestic lawyers criticized Byrnes for foisting traditional values on modern litigants, for sometimes going too far to try to reunite couples who just wanted a divorce.

The nominating commissioners did not consider the issues frivolous. But they were getting an avalanche of calls and letters from the other side, praising both judges for reappointment.

Along with the merits of the candidates, the commissioners were hearing about the political realities - that two veteran, well-recognized incumbents would be potentially lethal challengers if they ran from [See Judges, 6e] the outside for the nine city circuit seats to be awarded in next year's election.

There was the specter of a highly electable ticket - one led by Johnson, who emerged as the top vote-getter when he challenged the homogeneity of the bench in 1982 as a respected civil-rights lawyer. It was rumored that the names of other well-known black lawyers would follow his on a challengers' slate.

That, along with the view that Johnson "brought to the table" a willingness to work and a unique history that did the bench proud, spurred support even from lawyers and judges who privately cringed at some of their colleague's conduct.

"I think it ought to be well known that many thoughtful African-American legislators made it clear that any ticket with sitting judges on it would include Ken Johnson," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee who has known Johnson for 20 years.

"Ken is a person who has fought to bring not only himself but the rest of us into the inside."

Now, the sitting judges' ticket - including seven recent 'u appointees along with the two veterans - is seen around the courthouse as diverse enough to withstand challengers who might surface later. Five of the nine incumbents are black; three are women.

Said Kaplan: "Obviously judges running from the outside against judges on the inside presents a problem.

"It means you're going to have to heavily campaign for a long time. You're talking about basically one-third of the bench running, having their time taken up with what could have been a very nasty campaign. It's a very well-balanced, good ticket. I'm HTC hoping that it'll go through unscathed."

In many ways, Johnson and Byrnes, who faced the nominating commission on the same day, could not have been more different: trail-breaking challenger vs. established lawyer and politician. Johnson was born on a Columbia, Miss., farm with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing; Byrnes was a Baltimore judge's son who grew up near Edmondson Village and then graduated from Loyola College.

But in one way, they are similar - both refuse, despite many years on the bench, to erase individual style from a job that demands a blank face and an open mind. They make some people - including people expecting The Way Things Usually Go - extremely uncomfortable.

For that, the judges have been harshly questioned from some quarters:

Byrnes for mixing morality with law, for writing things such as a pamphlet on parenting that emphasizes the sanctity of marriage. Johnson for allowing no disrespect in an era when defendants don't hesitate to throw curses, sputum and even chairs at the bench; for unabashedly going after the "sacred cash cow" of drugs; for using plain and sometimes harsh language in the courtroom.

Johnson pronounced the war on drugs as "mostly eyewash" in a newspaper column. He commissioned a special grand jury, accusing government of ignoring white-collar, professional players in the drug trade, those who conducted their business behind closed doors and weren't as easy pickings as the young lookout on the West Baltimore corner.

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