The American Bar Association has launched an inquiry into whether Howard University violated the ABA's law school accreditation standards by granting degrees last month to students who the law faculty said had not met all graduation requirements.

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, chairman of the ABA Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, said his panel was "looking into" the decision by Howard University President James E. Cheek to let the law students graduate. Goodwin said there was "quite a bit of concern" by ABA leaders "about the precedent of the institutional executive . . . second-guessing faculties on degree granting."

"This is not a witch hunt," Goodwin said in a telephone interview from his office in Pasadena, Calif. "It is an inquiry to find out . . . if ABA standards are being properly observed and whether the quality of the degree is being damaged by the action."

The inquiry follows the departure of former law school dean John T. Baker amid a dispute over granting the degrees. Cheek said last month that he had requested Baker's resignation after agreeing to consider the students' grievances, but that the dean's departure was "unrelated in the main" to the degree dispute.

Cheek said that he had reviewed the cases of 13 students who originally had been denied diplomas by the faculty. Cheek allowed nine of those students to graduate. According to university officials, in some of these cases Cheek and the faculty eventually agreed on the outcome.

Cheek said he stepped in because he wished to "see to it that each student received justice." He said he asked Michael R. Winston, the vice president for academic affairs, to hold hearings on each case and that he acted according to Winston's recommendations.

The ABA sets standards for law school operations, and its approval is necessary for a school to win accreditation. In order to take the bar examination in the District and in most states, law school graduates must have attended an accredited school.

In letters last month, the ABA requested a report on "the grading, advancement and graduation" of the 1986 Howard law graduating class from Cheek, Baker and the school's new dean, J. Clay Smith. The ABA also sought information on "the role of the faculty in the appointment" of Smith, whom Cheek named May 14, the same day he ordered Baker to vacate his office.

Baker said recently he had complied with the ABA request. Neither Cheek nor Smith could be reached for comment.

In a statement issued by the university news office late yesterday, Roger D. Estep, Howard's vice president for development and university relations, said, "Our relationship with all of our accrediting bodies involves the exchange of confidential information. We often receive inquiries from them and provide them with information on a confidential basis."

He added, "The only comment I wish to make is that most of the law school's difficulties have been generated by misleading reports in the news media."

Goodwin said all the information received would be considered next week at a meeting of the ABA's accreditation committee in Salt Lake City. He said any recommendation the committee might make would be taken up by the Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which he heads, in August.

During the coming academic year, Howard Law is scheduled for its regular inspection by the ABA. After the last regular inspection in 1979, the ABA expressed concern about the rate at which Howard graduates passed bar exams. But after additional reports from Howard, accreditation was reaffirmed in 1982.