ONE OF THE last documents to pass between the in-baskets of the Ford administration was letter from Attorney General Edward H. Levi to Secretary of Interior Thomas Kleppe. The letter concerned the case of Joseph B. Kennedy, an Interior Department administrative law judge, who had been reprimanded last March by then Acting Secretary of the Interior Kent Frizzell. The latter was upset by Judge Kennedy's actions in a case involving a Kentucky coal commpany that had been assessed civil penalities for safety violations. Mr. Frizzell said Judge Kennedy had shown a "disregard" of "our legal system" because a Kentucky court had granted a delay in the case and the judge was interfering in that order of delay.

After 10 months of defending himself, Judge Kennedy has been exonerated by Mr. Levi. The Attorney General called the reprimand improper. If Interior believed it had a case against Judge Kennedy, said Mr. Levi. it should have taken action under the Administrative Procedures Act, not a reprimand in the personnel file.

But because Mr. Levi's letter was sent on Jan. 18, and Mr. Kleppe and Mr. Frizzell were apparently preoccupied with their imminent departures, the reprimand was not, in fact, withdrawn. The case deserves to be one of the first to be taken care of by the incoming officials at Interior. By clearing Judge Kennedy's name, the department has an opportunity to reaffirm the independence of administrative law judges. A large number of them had rallied to the defense of their colleague. Judge Kennedy is known for his dilligence in upholding the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and its provisions for assessing fines against negligent opertors. Part of such diligence comes from knowing that one's independence is secure. The end result is not only better-working administrative machinery in Washington but also increased chances that the coalfields will be safer.