Howard Manning, a retired Wake County Superior Court judge who has won numerous accolades for his oversight of a landmark education ruling in this state, no longer will preside over it.
Manning, who retired in July 2015, has suffered from health issues for much of the past year.
Though Manning initially planned to preside over the long-running case after retiring, he recently asked that another judge be assigned to monitor the state’s compliance with the 1997 ruling in the Leandro lawsuit.
Chief Justice Mark Martin tasked W. David Lee, a recently retired Union County judge, with that responsibility.
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Lee, who has worked in private practice in Monroe, was elected judge in 2010. Though his term expires in 2018, he retired from the bench in February, when he was 66.
“All eyes will be on him,” said Burley Mitchell, the former chief justice who was at the head of the state Supreme Court when the ruling was issued.
Named for the lead plaintiff from Hoke County, the Leandro case has had deep implications for public education in North Carolina.
School districts in five counties – Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland – sued the state, which led to two Supreme Court decisions, in 1997 and in 2004.
In the 1997 decision, known as Leandro I, the Supreme Court held that the state constitution guarantees every North Carolina child the right to a “sound basic education.” In the 2004 decision, known as Leandro II, the Supreme Court held that the state’s efforts to provide that education to poor children were inadequate. The court did not prescribe specific solutions; that was left up to legislators and education leaders.
In the 10 years since the Leandro II decision, Manning held, on average, two hearings each year to press the state on compliance.
Mitchell said Friday that he assigned Manning, a law school colleague, to the case after the 1997 ruling for several reasons.
“I thought, ‘Who is tenacious enough and focused enough?’ ” Mitchell said Friday. Manning, who is known for being blunt, outspoken and freewheeling, was his choice.
“He has been diligent in his work,” Mitchell said. “He has not let anybody deter him from his target. I would bet he knows some of these school districts’ performance records better than they do. Some of the folks that tried to do end-runs around him, they got squashed.”
But after bulldogging low-performing districts for the past two decades, Mitchell and others want Manning to be able to focus on something as important – his health.
“He has certainly earned some respite,” Mitchell said. “The children of this state and many others owe Howard Manning Jr. a tremendous debt of gratitude.”