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Judge Howard Manning steps away from landmark education case

Judge Howard Manning will no longer oversee Leandro v. State, the landmark education lawsuit that he has presided over for nearly 20 years.

Manning made a request to be removed from the case, and Chief Justice Mark Martin reassigned it on Oct. 7 to Emergency Superior Court Judge David Lee, according to Sharon Gladwell, communications director at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. She did not return two follow up emails and a message seeking more information and a formal court filing.

Melanie Dubis, who represents the plaintiffs in Leandro, and Mark Dorosin, an attorney working on the case for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said Thursday that they had no knowledge of the development and therefore could not comment.

Both expressed shock over the news and concern that they hadn’t been notified. Solicitor General John Maddrey also did not return a message seeking comment about the case.

Jane Wettach, director of the children’s law clinic at Duke University, said she also had not been informed about the change of judgeship. She said she is not familiar with Lee’s work.

“Judges and their personalities and the way they handle things makes a big difference and it certainly could change the course of things, but how it might is really difficult for me to say without knowing anything about Judge Lee,” she said.

Lee retired Feb. 1 from District 20B in Union County in Monroe, though his term doesn’t expire until 2018. He had either been practicing law or on the bench for more than 40 years, but there isn’t much more information readily available about his work. Lee’s clerk, Jessica Mangum, said Thursday that he was not immediately available for comment. She said his office received an order from the Chief Justice via email that had been signed Oct. 7.

Manning retired in July 2015, but continued to preside over hearings related to compliance with Leandro, which he was originally assigned to in 1997 by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell. Efforts to reach Manning were not successful.

Leandro requires that all North Carolina students have a right to a “sound, basic education.” The case has also been the flashpoint for debates about early childhood programs for at-risk kids and the call for more services and support for low-income schools.

Wettach said the most remarkable thing to her about Manning’s handling of the case was just how long it went on and “his continued need for having hearings and new information but not really making much in the way of decisions along the way.”

“My guess is another superior court judge could not take it on thinking I’m going to monitor this for the next 20 years,” she said. “That’s just a guess though.”

She added that Lee’s appointment could either mean the case will be closed or it could mean real change is coming.

“I would hope for some orders that have some meaning to them, substantive meaning, that really force the state to do things that will implement the Supreme Court’s message that everyone’s entitled to a sound basic education, and that usually means resources and programs,” she said. “That’s what needs to be done, and they’ve just been sort of circling around it for so many years with not a lot to show for it.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by NC Policy Watch on October 20, 2016.

Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton is a courts and law reporter at NC Policy Watch.