CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYERS have developed a new method for dealing with Klan violence: sue them in federal court. The idea is to prosecute the white sheet crowd in criminal court and then--win or lose--to bring civil suits requesting compensatory and punitive damages and injunctions against further harassment. Such suits have been successful in the South, and just last month in the Maryland suburbs of Washington in a case involving cross burnings.

William Aitcheson of Ellicott City was charged with seven cross burnings in this area while he was a college student in 1976 and 1977. He was at the time a member of a splinter group of the Maryland Klan known as the Klan Beret. According to government informants who infiltrated the organization, the group had stockpiled guns and ammunition which it planned to use to terrorize blacks and other minorities in the community. Mr. Aitcheson pleaded guilty to three cross burnings--on the lawn of a black family in College Park, outside the Hillel House at the University of Maryland and on the grounds of the Beth Torah Synagogue in Hyattsville. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

But that was not the end of the case. In June 1978, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association initiated a class action lawsuit seeking money damages for the victims of Mr. Aitcheson's acts and a broad injunction against further acts to intimidate or injure black or Jewish persons. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Kaufman ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, granting $26,000 in damages to the injured parties.

Perhaps more important, he issued a broad injunction prohibiting Mr. Aitcheson and his Klan cohorts from "harassing, assaulting or intimidating plaintiffs or any other black or Jewish persons in the Washington metropolitan area; trespassing on (their) property . . . or otherwise interfering with plaintiffs . . . in the exercise of their rights to reside, own property, conduct business or practice their religion in the Washington metropolitan area." The defendant has not been seen or heard from in recent months, but with the threat of a contempt citation hanging over his head, it's a good bet he won't be donning a white hood to light up the Maryland suburbs any time soon.

The beauty of the new civil suit approach to Klan violence is that it allows private parties to press for justice even when the criminal process has failed or has been ineffective. And the granting of an injunction serves to prevent violence, not simply to punish it once it has occurred. The Aitcheson case is a model of doubly effective response--both criminal and civil--to Klan terrorism.