NOBODY CAN BE happy with Prince George's County Circuit Judge James Rea's decision Monday to take control of the county jail -- a decision that has now been blocked pending a full appeal. It was a terrible precedent and, even if the judge aims subsequently to punish the guards for having walked off the job and violated a court injunction against striking, there is some truth to County Executive Lawrence Hogan's charge that the judge's takeover of the jail and his intervention in the case reward the guards for having acted selfishly without regard for public safety when they left their posts to go on strike last week and a small riot by inmates ensued.

It is true that by ordering the guards back to work and giving them the 9.7 percent cost-of-living pay increase that non-union employees received over a year ago, Judge Rea restored some sense of order to a troublesome brew of egos, politics and angry strikers. And it is also true that no one but the judge had the power (his is under legal challenge now) to intervene in that situation when someone needed to step in with a view from above the fray. But even when you have said that, you have not demonstrated that, fearsome as they were, the conditions that prevailed in that jail, and by extension in the community that seemed unable to resolve them, justified so audacious a step as the judge's having intervened so substantially in the negotiations themselves.

A legal appeal will determine if this was justified or even permissible. But no court finding is required to know that Mr. Hogan's performance has been truly reckless here. Contract talks between him and AFSCME had been stalled for too long -- 18 months -- with the Republican county executive advertising himself as the gallant defender of taxpayers and foe of evil public workers' unions that are linked with the Democratic county council. Mr. Hogan has acted at the expense of county employees and, now that there is a strike, county residents are paying for his actions as well. A hearing examiner and a judge have both ruled that he is guilty of allowing political considerations to enter into contract talks. Despite these rulings, Mr. Hogan has refused to sign a contract even though his own negotiators agreed to a contract with the union months ago.

Now Mr. Hogan would like to drag the judge into this political free-for-all by noting that the judge is a former head of the county's Democratic Central Committee. He would do better to lay off the motive-reading and try to settle the strike -- all major economic issues at stake have been agreed on. Mr. Hogan created this terrible situation and he can end it.