THE JUSTICE Department has gratuitously intervened in a volatile situation involving antiabortion demonstrations in Wichita. The Kansas city has been the scene of disruptive protests for weeks, and local police have arrested more than 2,000 demonstrators who tried to block access to three abortion clinics. Worse, the federal judge who has been attempting to reestablish order and protect the rights of those entering the clinics has been physically harassed at his home and has received what are described as credible death threats. Into this explosive situation lurches the Justice Department, challenging the authority of the judge and siding with demonstrators on an important procedural point.

The siege of Wichita began when Operation Rescue descended on the city intent on shutting down the three clinics. All citizens have the right to picket and protest so long as their activity is peaceful, but the Wichita demonstrators turned nasty. Owners of two clinics went to federal court seeking an order to end harassment and the blocking of access. Judge Patrick Kelly issued that order and later directed federal marshals to enforce it. His action was premised on a federal Reconstruction-era statute outlawing conspiracies formed to deny civil rights.

The Justice Department contends that this statute, passed to protect blacks, does not protect the rights of women seeking abortions. The entire Wichita dispute, government lawyers maintain, belongs not in federal but in state court. This is still an unsettled legal question, but the Supreme Court is about to consider it in a case from Virginia. The Justice Department has presented its view in a brief filed in the Supreme Court. There was no valid reason to intervene and make the same argument in a lower court in Wichita.

It would be unfair to assume that the government, in taking this action, has sanctioned the demonstrators' tactics of harassment and obstruction. Pending appellate court review, Judge Kelly's order remains in effect and is being enforced by U.S. marshals. The problem is that by unnecessarily weighing in with this procedural argument, the department has undermined the judge's authority, fostered uncertainty in a dangerous situation and allowed Operation Rescue to be seen at this critical stage as an ally of the federal government.

The legal issue here over federal jurisdiction will be settled soon in the Supreme Court. The department's position on the question is well known and on the record. Considering the potentially explosive situation in Wichita, the intervention was not only unwarranted but cynical.