Panel rebukes city judge Johnson's order put handcuffs on lawyer during 1996 hearing

October 29, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities took the rare step yesterday of reprimanding Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson for putting a lawyer in handcuffs after he tried to speak for his client last year.

Johnson, 60, agreed to the private reprimand, according to a statement released by the commission yesterday. He also agreed that it be made public, said Steven P. Lemmey, investigative counsel for the commission.

The judge, who took the day off yesterday, did not respond to telephone messages left at his home seeking comment.

Johnson's conduct on the bench became an issue recently before the city nominating commission for circuit judges, which questioned the judge last month about a number of cases in which he was said to wield the power of contempt of court inappropriately.

Despite that debate, the commission nominated Johnson for a second term Sept. 22 after receiving a slew of support letters from lawyers and judges. Gov. Parris N. Glendening followed their recommendation quickly, reappointing Johnson the next day to sit until judicial elections are held next fall. Johnson, the top vote-getter when he successfully challenged sitting judges for a seat on the bench in 1982, was feared as a possible outside challenger to other sitting judges if not reappointed to his position.

Lawyer's request

The disabilities complaint in question was filed by lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell, whom Johnson ordered handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy during a May 1996 violation of probation hearing.

On a videotape of the courtroom exchange, Ravenell asked the judge if he could speak with his client before she spoke to the court. When Johnson said no and told him to sit down, Ravenell did, saying: "Judge, this makes no sense."

After that, Johnson ordered a sheriff's deputy to handcuff Ravenell. Johnson threatened to send the lawyer to jail for five months and 29 days, telling Ravenell to appeal if he liked. The appellate court "can let you out, but [it] cannot take back the time you spent in there," the judge said.

But an hour later, he changed his mind about putting him in jail, telling Ravenell to send another lawyer to handle the case at a later date.

In a response to the complaint, Johnson wrote that he had apologized to Ravenell, saying: "I was not as gracious in my conduct as I should have been."

Michael E. Kaminkow, a law partner of Ravenell's who joined him in filing the complaint, declined yesterday to comment on the reprimand.

Rare rebuke

Judges are rarely reprimanded by the disabilities commission. Of 133 written complaints filed during fiscal year 1997, only one judge was publicly reprimanded and another had discipline "deferred" by agreement. Most of the complaints were dismissed, some of them after the judges in question had retired.

Because Johnson agreed to the reprimand, he will not face the possibility of public hearings that could result in harsher discipline, such as "censure" or a recommendation for removal.

Other cases

While investigating Ravenell's complaint, the commission also learned of several other cases, including one in which Johnson 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. In a response to the nominating commission, Johnson wrote that he was trying to keep the man from harming or threatening jurors as they left the courthouse.

Lemmey would not comment on whether the reprimand also resolves a separate disabilities complaint involving Johnson, filed by a Silver Spring man who said the judge wrongly jailed him last year for not paying child support. Citing confidentiality rules, Lemmey said he could not even verify the existence of that complaint, though other sources involved in the process did.

Johnson has written in response that the child support complaint was completely unjustified. He said the man who was jailed later left the country, with an arrearage larger than the judge had originally thought. If anything, Johnson wrote, he was too lenient.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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