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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

In March 1992, as his son was being convicted of murder, Rodney Ockimey exclaimed, "Oh, no," while leaving Johnson's courtroom. According to a videotape of the proceedings, Johnson ordered Ockimey detained, then called him to the witness stand after the jury had gone.

"You disrupted this court," Johnson told Ockimey.

"I'm sorry," Ockimey replied, crying. "But they lied on my son. My child didn't do it, I know it."

"I'm sorry to say it, sir, but your son is a murderer," said Johnson, ordering the man to jail for the night.

In his response, Johnson wrote that members of Ockimey's family had been disrupting the trial for days. He wrote that he feared that Ockimey might harm jurors if allowed to leave.

"I took what I thought was the least restrictive guaranteed means of protecting them, which was to impose an overnight jail term," the judge wrote.

Complaint called unjustified

In the September 1996 child support case, Johnson wrote that the complaint was completely unjustified. He said the man who was jailed later left the country, with an arrearage larger than the judge originally thought. If anything, Johnson wrote, he was too lenient.

In the 1993 case of the profane defendant, Johnson wrote that the complaints did not reflect that the man spat at him while leaving the courtroom.

"My comments concerning the shotgun were inappropriate, but were made in an effort to quell the situation as I had a courtroom full of people who reacted to the spitting incident," the judge wrote.

Last year, Johnson had Baltimore lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy. The judge said he did it because Ravenell did not sit down when told to. On the courtroom videotape, Ravenell asks the judge if he can speak with his client before she speaks to the court. When Johnson said no and told him to sit down, Ravenell did, saying: "Judge, this makes no sense."

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 he changed his mind an hour later, telling Ravenell to "send someone else down" to handle the case later.

Johnson wrote to the commission that he has apologized to Ravenell.

"I was not as gracious in my conduct as I should have been, but in no way was I ever attempting to 'bait' him," Johnson wrote.

Ravenell declined to comment.

Letters of praise

A number of lawyers and judges have written to the commission, praising Johnson's civil rights work and his workhorse handling of cases.

"I am not unaware that Judge Johnson has been criticized for purported indiscretions," Baltimore Circuit Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman wrote in a four-page letter. "And so have I -- and how many judges of substantial tenure can say otherwise?"

Hammerman wrote that Johnson "has a very large constituency among the citizens of Baltimore who admire, and to a great extent, revere him."

Byrnes renomination

Byrnes, the other judge facing renomination, is a former lawyer and state senator who yearns not just to referee cases, but to help cure the ills of society. To that end, he has been active in a number of civic activities while on the bench, including a juvenile reading project, a foundation to restore the courthouse, and a book about the history of Baltimore's bench and bar.

While Byrnes' renomination is not likely to generate nearly the controversy that Johnson's has, Byrnes is expected to face questions about some lawyers' criticism of his handling of domestic cases. He, like Johnson, also has had many supporters who have written to the committee.

Byrnes, 58, said in an interview that he has prepared for the nomination process, including in his application an informal poll of domestic lawyers conducted by an attorney in August. That poll found lawyers were pleased with his courtroom demeanor and concern for litigants, but were sometimes frustrated with his idealism about reuniting families that had been torn irrevocably apart.

Byrnes said the law requires him to zealously guard the best interests of children in the broken families before him.

"So long as the law prompts judges to be zealous and interested in what lawyers and their parties have agreed to involving children, I'm going to do that," he said.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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