Joseph Henry Herbst Kaplan, the city judge who controls the fate of three crippled Maryland savings and loan associations and their combined $1 billion in assets, was jaywalking across North Calvert Street last week when a lawyer sidled up to him and said, "So judge, I understand you've got all three of those savings and loans now."

"That's right," said Kaplan, smiling. "There's no point in making two courts miserable."

The lawyer grinned back, for he and the rest of Baltimore's closely knit legal community know that Joe Kaplan -- a highly regarded judge who relishes the limelight -- has been anything but miserable in the four months since Maryland's thrift industry crisis began.

Indeed, as monitor of the state government's conservatorship of Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda and two Baltimore thrifts, Kaplan is at the peak of power after a remarkable 22-year career as a federal prosecutor, a defense lawyer for white-collar criminals and now as a city Circuit Court judge. An advocate for 123,000 angry depositors whose money is frozen by court order and the occasional scourge of lawyers in the case, Kaplan wields enormous clout in the state's attempt to rejuvenate an industry tainted by scandal and eroded by a loss of consumer confidence.

Kaplan also holds considerable power over the lives of several dozen savings and loan officers, as he proved five days ago when he imposed a $1,000-a-week personal spending allowance on Jeffrey A. Levitt, the former president of Old Court Savings and Loan. In rejecting a request by Levitt's attorney for a $4,000-a-week allowance, Kaplan noted that the millionaire Levitt and his wife Karol had made "far-greater-than-normal living purchases."

Kaplan loves legal high-wire acts, especially those in the public eye, according to more than a dozen of his former colleagues and longtime friends. Trim at 48 (he spurns the courthouse elevator and climbs 129 marble steps to his office each morning), Kaplan brings to the bench a prosecutor's sense of right and wrong and insistence on full disclosure of facts, a defense lawyer's respect for the rights of the accused, an acid wit and a wry sense of humor, his associates say.

"You might have a half-dozen judges on the circuit bench capable of handling a problem the size of Old Court, and Joe is probably at the top of the list," said Baltimore lawyer Theodore S. Miller, a longtime friend who has argued cases before Kaplan. "I can't think of anyone more qualified for this crisis."

It takes 33 lines of fine type to sum up Kaplan's biography (the longest of Maryland's 119 judges) in a state government manual, testament to a career that included a short stint in the office of U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Tydings in the early 1960s, more than a decade at the silk-stocking law firm of Venable Baetjer & Howard -- where he defended a man accused of bribing Spiro T. Agnew -- his appointment to the circuit bench in 1977 and numerous charitable works.

The biography omits the fact that the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Kaplan was the first Jew hired by Venable, which in the early 1960s was, in Miller's words, a "deadwood, old blue blood" law firm of about 20 lawyers.

Nor does the resume mention Kaplan's passion for fine antique clocks, which he has collected since his college days, or note that for years he drove a Jeep to the courthouse until his wife complained.

"Joe Kaplan is an interesting combination," said Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and former Venable partner who was instrumental in Kaplan's being hired at the law firm.

"He has a great deal of genuine idealism -- not much patience for wishy-washy behavior -- and a real love for simple and universal truths. Contradictorily, he's a man of the world. He's not about to believe that everyone is always telling him the truth."

At Venable, Kaplan served in 1973 as counsel for the late Lester Matz, the owner of a Baltimore County engineering firm who was a key witness in the political corruption investigation of then vice president Agnew. During months of negotiations with members of U.S. Attorney George Beall's staff, Kaplan carried the secret of the bribes that Matz had given to Agnew, including one made in the White House.

"Joe has integrity," Beall said. "He's not wily; there's not any guile there."

In May 1975, when Beall was in private law practice, a corporate client launched a hostile takeover of a Waldorf gas company that Kaplan represented. The takeover attempt began on the Friday afternoon before Mother's Day, and Kaplan worked nonstop for 48 hours to block the takeover temporarily, Beall said.

"When it's necessary, Joe is indefatigable," said Beall, who also worked through that weekend. "That should help him now."

So should the confidence Kaplan has brought to countless decisions in large and small cases alike, according to his close acquaintances.

Former Baltimore labor commissioner Robert S. Hillman recalled that in the tense days of civil unrest in 1974, a series of highly publicized wildcat strikes by guards at the city jail had prompted Baltimore officials to fire the jail warden.

The warden, who had broad support in what Hillman described as "the law-and-order community," appealed his firing to the city Civil Service Commission, then headed by Kaplan. The commission upheld the dismissal.

"Joe was a very firm and calming force in those days," Hillman said. "His behavior was exemplary."

Kaplan has not shied from making unpopular decisions and statements. In November 1969, as a Democratic member of the state Human Relations Commission, he railed against the government's photographing of peaceful antiwar and black demonstrators in Baltimore, saying the practice was "close to a police state" tactic.

Ten years later, Judge Kaplan voided a voter initiative approving rent control in Baltimore, prompting a spate of letters to the governor demanding Kaplan's dismissal. And recently, when the two sides in a spectacular divorce case could not reach agreement on a settlement, Kaplan decided the case. Each side appealed.

"He's got a lot of confidence, a lot of courage," said former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti, who supervised Kaplan in the litigation department of Venable Baetjer. "He looks for solutions, and his decisions are guided by a moral sense of bright lines -- and of what happens when you cross the line."

Kaplan's zeal for total accuracy and the speedy resolution of problems is legendary.

As administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, he is effectively the landlord of this city's Beaux Arts courthouse and is overseeing the meticulous restoration of that marble wedding cake of a building known locally as "the noble pile."

Kaplan once complained to Beall about how the city bureaucracy had installed ordinary light bulbs in an atrium for which Kaplan had especially ordered turn-of-the-century glass globes. "Within a month, those authentic globes were in place," Beall said.

On the bench, Kaplan moves the highly complex arguments about the savings and loan associations at a rapid clip. On Tuesday, as Levitt defense attorney Paul Mark Sandler launched a discourse against the personal spending allowance for Levitt, Kaplan interrupted, saying, "Mr. Sandler, we don't need to hear a William Jennings Bryan speech. This is not the Scopes trial."

Earlier that morning, when Shale D. Stiller, the attorney for Old Court's state conservator, complained about the brief time he had to respond to Sandler's voluminous legal motions, Kaplan smiled and said, "There is such a thing as a short response to a long motion."

Lawyers generally give Kaplan rave reviews about his courtroom demeanor, but more than one have felt the judge's wrath when Kaplan felt slighted. "He'll blow sometimes," said Miller. "He gets a little testy on the bench. He shoots off a little."

Early in the Old Court case, at a hastily called hearing before Kaplan, Stiller -- a leader in Baltimore legal circles -- appeared at Gov. Harry Hughes' request to represent the state conservator. Kaplan exploded, rebuking the Hughes administration for appointing Stiller without obtaining the judge's permission to do so.

"He flew off the handle," said one government lawyer who was present. "Technically, Kaplan was correct. Only he had the power to appoint Stiller, and he hadn't done that yet. But he didn't have to chastise the conservator in public."

"I thought the state had been cavalier about the constitutional separation of powers," Kaplan said in an interview last week. The judge formally approved Stiller's appointment within three days and received a written apology from Hughes in which the governor explained that Stiller had been hastily appointed because of the press of time.

Many view the Stiller episode as indicative of how Kaplan views his role as manager of the Old Court and other thrifts' conservatorships.

"What he'd like to do is put pressure on the governor and legislature to free up as many of the deposits as quickly as they can," said Baltimore lawyer Sidney G. Leech, a friend of Kaplan's. "Short of that, his primary goal is to keep things on track, pushing this process forward rapidly so it doesn't languish."

"It's a very simple goal," Kaplan said. "Out of this whole business, I want to save the taxpayers as much as I can and get money to depositors as fast as I can."

Kaplan has often told reporters of his sympathy for depositors, and the lawyers in the Old Court case have received the same message: The judge has refused to allow payment of legal fees until the state government devises a plan to allow some withdrawals for hardship cases.

"I don't think the depositors were greedy at all," Kaplan said, referring to the high interest rates many thrifts offered to attract deposits. "It was a legitimate thing to do, to go for the highest interest. Any normal human being would have done that.

"I have a great deal of difficulty understanding how we got into this," Kaplan went on. "If you look at the practices at Old Court, it was old hat," similar to those at thrifts that failed in the early 1960s, paralyzing Maryland's savings and loan industry then, Kaplan said.

The judge said he believes that the current crisis was caused, in part, by the failure of state officials to enforce regulations established in the wake of the earlier crisis.

"My question to the state is: Where were you when the rumors of shoddy business deals were out there in banking quarters, in real estate quarters, in the construction industry? The rumors were out there well before this started," Kaplan said.

Like many state government officials, thousands of depositors and the legion of lawyers who have flocked to the conservatorship cases, Kaplan expects the paralysis in parts of the thrift industry to last at least another six months. Losses at Old Court are estimated at $175 million, and losses at Community could run to more than $100 million, the judge said.

Kaplan said he derives small solace from the situation -- he fields several telephone calls and letters from distraught depositors every day -- but he believes that he is suited to the job.

"The reason why I became a judge was that I always liked to resolve disputes and impasses," Kaplan said. "I like to bring sense out of bad situations."