We expect an announcement soon that Superior Court Judge Howard “Howdy” Manning, Jr. will be retiring upon reaching the mandatory judicial retirement age. Our state will lose a dedicated and effective judge because of an arbitrary codicil in what is already a bad system for judicial selection and retention.
Following the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Leandro low-wealth school decision, then-Chief Justice Burley Mitchell assigned Manning the task of adjudicating and assuring our children receive the “sound basic education” our Constitution dictates. Mitchell told Manning he would likely spend the rest of his career with this case. He was prescient as well as wise in choosing Manning.
Irreverent, irascible and independent are descriptors of Howdy Manning. We would add inquisitive, indefatigable, insightful, immersed, sometimes incorrigible, but totally immovable in demanding that the education establishment do better by our children. Manning knows more about public education in our state than most anyone. He has taken his assignment far beyond perfunctory or cursory levels, tirelessly studying data, comparing results of the 100-plus school districts and visiting classrooms across the state to learn what is and isn’t working. Critics say he has sometimes overstepped his authority but even his detractors admire his tenacity and dedication; meanwhile the appellate courts have upheld most of his decisions.
Manning has judged many important cases but we will primarily miss his wisdom and expertise in public education, but perhaps not for long. Like many judges forced to retire, Manning will hopefully be appointed an “emergency” judge and continue his outstanding work on the Leandro case. But it points to the need to reform North Carolina’s judicial selection and retention system.
Since 1971, we have been debating how to ensure the highest caliber judges and some good reform proposals have come forward. So far there’s been little reform, mostly talk. The big questions focus on how we select judges and how we make sure good ones are retained. Our judicial elections aren’t working. Voters stand some chance of knowing the candidates for District and Superior Court judgeships but few know those running on the appellate level. Our legislature tweaked the system this year by allowing appellate judges to opt for retention elections rather than run against an actual opponent. Some suspect this was done to accommodate one Court of Appeals judge, but it was a good step.
We haven’t had a real discussion about the mandatory judicial retirement age. Federal judges don’t have to retire at a certain age, neither do state and locally elected officials. Why does it make sense for a seasoned jurist to be forced to retire at age 72? Taxpayers lose all the way around. Not only do we lose the wisdom and experience, but many judges choose to be appointed as “emergency” judges, receiving not only their very generous pension (up to two-thirds their annual salary) while also earning a state paycheck.
Our Constitution allows the legislature to set the retirement age but there is no compelling reason why that age couldn’t be 75, 80 or even no mandatory age. Many judges will choose to retire to go into private practice or just go fishing, but those who wish to continue on the bench should be allowed to do so. We should at least raise the retirement age lest we lose the experience and wisdom of seasoned jurists like Howdy Manning.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.