Tar Heel of the Year

Weary of watching poorly educated defendants pass through his courtroom, a Raleigh judge born into privilege makes history with a ruling that demands a better education for North Carolina's poorest children. Will the legislature listen?

Staff WritersDecember 26, 2004 

Howard Manning Jr. peers over his glasses at the young inmates in striped jumpsuits who stand to face him in Wake County's Courtroom 3A. One by one, they plead guilty: second-degree murder, burglary, assault.

This is the dreary part of a Superior Court judge's work, the end-of-the-line declaration that nothing else has helped. On this mid-November morning, the room is nearly empty as Manning sends the guilty to prison. Around noon, he is done.

Manning takes off his black robe, hops in his 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis and drives to Chapel Hill to speak to dozens of school principals. His style is a mixture of irreverence and dry wit, and his message is blunt. "Some of your high schools," Manning declares, "are about as sorry as I've ever seen."

Courtrooms to classrooms. Howard Manning has seen the worst of each, and he has noticed a connection. Almost none of the felons in his courtroom ever did much in school, and school never did much for them.

"They are your responsibility as principal," he says to the school leaders. "There's no place to hide."

For principals and state legislators, there's a warning in those words. Manning isn't the first judge to link bad schools with bad lives. But he's the one who has done the most about it on a statewide scale -- and he's just getting started.

Two years ago, Manning ordered that every public classroom in the state have a caring, qualified teacher, and every school have sufficient resources and be led by a competent principal. This summer, the state Supreme Court upheld Manning's rulings in the long-running case, Leandro vs. the State of North Carolina.

The decisions have huge implications for students, educators and taxpayers. Eventually, they could add up to better schools -- and hundreds of millions a year in increased spending. Already, Gov. Mike Easley has had to scrape together $22 million as a first step, with the money going to 16 of the state's poorest districts. The case rose out of conditions in five poor school systems but was expanded by Manning to consider educational opportunities for children across the state.

The Republican judge had more impact on public schools this year than any other state leader, Easley included.

The schools case is the latest episode in the lifelong education of Howdy Manning, the eldest son of a prominent Raleigh lawyer. Manning grew up knowing a comfortable life, but he has become a champion of disadvantaged children.

He has handled the case in unorthodox ways, speaking his mind in often colorful, plain English and writing long-winded opinions.

Even as the Supreme Court sided with him on his ruling, the justices noted its 400-page heft and the "free-wheeling nature of the trial court's order."

Critics say he has taken the law too far.

"Judge Manning is the most activist judge since I don't know when," says Sabra Faires, counsel for House co-speaker Richard Morgan, a Republican from Moore County. "He issues these rambling opinions that, once you get done with them, it's hard to know what he wants. Then he gets mad when he perceives us as being slow to react."

When he's angry, Manning spares few: indifferent legislators, uncaring teachers, ineffective principals, arrogant administrators, blue-ribbon commissions, pointy-shoed experts from up North.

"I'm carrying out my responsibility as I see it," he says. "You have to push people to make things move in the direction that the law requires. You can't be a wallflower and do that.

"The law applies to everyone across the board, not just the privileged few."

Manning's rulings reflect a personal style that is both demanding and generous, learned and folksy. He loves to talk, especially when he's telling a story, whether it's about bats in his family's vacation house in Oriental or his tennis-playing days in the Navy.

But the 61-year-old judge from Raleigh has earned such a reputation for sound judgment -- especially in complicated matters -- that senior judges have tapped him repeatedly to handle cases with significant statewide impact.

Now, with legislators weeks away from returning to Raleigh, a judge who has no hesitation about raising hell is determined to make his orders stick, prodding lawmakers to do whatever it takes to help struggling students succeed. He has signaled repeatedly that he expects legislators to snap to and respond.

There are times he wishes he could just hold them in contempt of court.

"You can't march 'em down the street," Manning says during a recent talk to a community group in North Raleigh. "I can't get [Wake Sheriff] Donnie Harrison and the drug dogs to go down to the legislature and pick up [Senate leader] Marc Basnight."

He does, however, appreciate the power of a stern lecture from the bench.

"One thing judges can do, is we can have hearings," Manning says. "It's amazing what can happen when you have a hearing."

Rebellious early years

Howdy Manning has never been afraid to test his limits. At 14, he took his father's Olds 88 for a joy ride when his parents were away, somehow escaping blame for an obvious dent he left in the rear bumper.

He joined friends from Daniels Junior High School in bashing mailboxes along Ridge Road in west Raleigh. That punishment he didn't avoid, replacing the damaged property by doing yard chores for his mother at 25 cents an hour.

"I walk down Ridge Road today and I think, 'A few of those mailboxes are mine,' '' he says.

For his last two years of high school, his parents sent him off to Virginia Episcopal School, prestigious and private. He played football and was a top tennis player.

As a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1961, he pledged Zeta Psi fraternity, a group known for its irreverence. His weight ballooned to 270 pounds on his six-foot frame. He drank a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Manning has always been known as Howdy, a family nickname given him by his grandmother. His expanding girth earned him an additional moniker: Hog.

One winter night, fraternity brothers left a frozen porker in his bed. A Marlboro cigarette -- Manning's brand back then -- dangled from its mouth.

Howard Manning Sr. was worried. When it came time for Howdy's younger brother, George, to attend Chapel Hill, he left him at his dorm with a warning, Howdy Manning says.

"Now look here," his father told George. "I want you to have a good time, but I don't want another [expletive] Howdy on my hands."

"I had a good time," Manning acknowledges. "I was a pain in the ass."

Dad pushes hard

Howard Sr. set a daily example for his four sons with his demanding work ethic. He'd work from 8 to 6, return for dinner at the family's Banbury Road home, then go back to his law office. The kids were in bed by the time he was done. He often worked weekends.

He was strict. Dinner conversation was often devoted to questions about how the boys were doing in school. "Inquisitions," Manning calls them.

"We were glad when we saw the taillights pull out of the drive-way," he says.

Education was a given in the Manning home. His father and mother were heirs to family traditions of academic achievement. His father, who died in 2002, received his law degree from Harvard Law School after attending UNC-Chapel Hill. His mother, Mariana, who died this summer, graduated from Smith College.

His grandfather, Isaac Hall Manning, was the dean of the UNC medical school.

Two of his younger brothers are lawyers: Tommy, a respected criminal lawyer in Raleigh; and George, a successful corporate lawyer in Atlanta. His youngest brother, Isaac, is an architect in Texas.

Howdy Manning started law school in 1965, attending classes in a building named for his great grandfather, John Manning, the first professor of law on the UNC faculty. The family expectations were etched in stone.

Larry McDevitt, a lawyer in Asheville who sat next to Manning in law school, remembers the first day of criminal law class, when the professor read the roll.

"When he got to Howdy, he looked up," McDevitt says. " 'Manning Hall, I presume?' "

Howdy grows up

The family gave him more than a name. As a young lawyer, Manning learned a lasting lesson from his father: Know the facts. Know everything about a case. Know it better than your opponent.

If the case involves a piece of property, drive there, get out of your car, walk around, know the terrain, take a soil sample, examine the records. Know the law.

"You found out all the facts about your client's case so you knew it backwards and forwards," Manning says.

His father also passed along a sense of fearlessness, made clear by the controversial cases the elder Manning accepted. He represented N.C. State, for example, when it forced out popular basketball coach Jim Valvano.

But by observation, Howdy Manning learned another lesson: Don't do everything the way his father did.

"You get more with sugar than you do with quinine," Manning says. "And he was quinine."

After law school, Manning served four years as a Navy Judge Advocate General officer in California and then Charleston, S.C., When he returned to Raleigh to join the firm his father helped found, he had learned to stand on his own.

"I had enough space away from him so I could start to develop my own techniques of practicing law and doing things myself as me rather than being in his shadow from day one," he says.

On his own, Manning learned physical discipline. He adopted a strict exercise regimen that has never waned, slimming down to the 200 pounds he weighs today.

To save time, he traded tennis for jogging -- and ran the New York City marathon at age 37. Today, he walks at a brisk pace every morning for more than an hour, covering streets and paths inside the Raleigh Beltline that he has known since he was knocking down mailboxes. He times each walk and keeps a log, a habit from his running days.

He and his wife, Elizabeth, settled in Five Points in the mid 1970s with their young son, little Howdy. Their daughter, Anna, soon followed. They had been there more than a dozen years -- and remain there still -- when Manning decided to seek a six-month stint on the Superior Court bench in 1988.

Manning had practiced law in Raleigh for 16 years. He had argued a complex case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He had done criminal work, civil work, all of it. He wanted to try something else.

Manning grabs a gavel

Manning was a conservative Democrat who had switched parties in 1987, after he saw Colorado Sen. Gary Hart try to continue his presidential campaign despite revelations of womanizing. Similarly, he was aggravated when he heard that former Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, a Democrat who had been prosecuted by Manning's father for a misdemeanor tax charge, was going to run for secretary of state.

A vacancy in Superior Court offered the chance at something new, and Manning let it be known he was interested. Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, appointed him.

Experience as a judge, Manning figured, could be valuable for a lawyer. Besides, he understood that as a Republican, his term was bound to end with the elections that November. Not since the 19th century had a Republican won a seat on any Superior Court in the state.

"I saw it as a great opportunity," Manning says. "You're always learning."

Others quickly learned he was willing to challenge established practices -- starting with an expectation that he approve all routine plea bargains.

During one of his first court sessions in Durham, Manning rejected a deal that would have meant a five-year prison sentence for a black man involved in a drug deal. He refused it because just minutes before, prosecutors had presented a lighter sentence for a white man charged with a similar crime.

"Why should he be going to jail for five years when they were both doing the same thing?" he asks now. "I'm not going to send him to jail for five years when I just let the white guy go on probation."

His first tour as a judge gave Manning a close-up understanding of the link between crime and education.

"It was an eye-opener," he says. "The terrific extent of the drug problem, the extent of the poverty and the lack of education in the defendants. No matter where you went -- and I covered a lot of counties -- I was running into the same stuff."

Manning's approach to the job helped catch the attention of Durham's black political leadership, gaining him key endorsements that brought decisive support in November 1988. He won.

Howard Manning Jr. -- Tar Heel of the Year (Part 2)

Staff writer Todd Silberman can be reached at 829-4531 or todd.silberman@newsobserver.com.

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