Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. is stepping down, having reached the state’s mandatory retirement age of 72. All who care about North Carolina’s public schools will see him leave with a mix of gratitude and apprehension.
From the bench, Manning compelled North Carolina to meet its constitutional standards for providing all children “a sound basic education.” Now he’s retiring when the General Assembly’s leaders appear bent on weakening the state’s commitment to public schools.
Judge Manning is known as “Howdy,” which distinguished him in his earlier years from his late father, a prominent Raleigh attorney for more than 50 years. Two of Howard Jr.’s brothers also became lawyers. The branches of the Manning family tree are even taller. The judge’s great-grandfather was one of the founders of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school, and his grandfather was dean of Chapel Hill’s medical school.
Manning might have chosen, then, a pretty comfortable life in private practice. Instead, he has devoted himself to various posts on the bench, gaining a reputation as stern, forthright, unconcerned about critics and passionate about a cause that has mattered most for the latter part of his career: public education.
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It is Manning who has overseen, at the direction of the N.C. Supreme Court, the ongoing aspects of the Leandro case, which has come to cover the general issue of ensuring that North Carolina’s low-wealth school districts provide a “sound, basic education” for children, as required by the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of the constitution. The case concerned a lawsuit from five low-wealth districts charging that inadequate state funding meant all students were not getting that constitutional guarantee.
Traveling the state, talking to school personnel, watching classes, becoming an authority in curricula – Manning did all that in the process of enforcing the law and ordering school officials and legislators to live up to the state’s obligation.
Thankfully, though he’s retiring, Manning will continue to hold control of Leandro, as it’s known. Judges are allowed to keep certain cases past the mandatory retirement age.
This is one judge whose retirement is a true loss to the bench and the judicial system.