I can remember it like it was yesterday — my first hearing before a judge that involved a significant legal issue. I was 26 years old, and it was during my first year of practicing law (1983). The day before the hearing, I received a telephone call from John Mathers, the attorney I was renting an office from. He was out of the state on business and wasn’t going to be back in time to attend the hearing. He asked me to cover the hearing for him, told me where I could find the file, and explained the issues in the case.
After I got off the telephone, I reviewed the file and it didn’t appear as though we had a very good chance of convincing the judge to rule in our favor. I called John back and told him that I didn’t feel comfortable standing in for him at the hearing. I told him that I thought the better approach would be for me to contact the opposing attorney to ask if he would agree to continue the hearing to another date, when John would be available to attend the hearing. John responded by telling me that he had already continued the hearing on two other occasions and he didn’t think the opposing attorney would agree to another continuance on such short notice.
I was irritated with John for waiting until the day before the hearing to contact me. I told him that I didn’t want to be responsible for losing on an issue that was critically important to the case. He expressed confidence in my ability to handle the matter and told me to do the best I could.
I spent a good deal of time preparing for the hearing, but it didn’t do any good. The name of the judge who heard the case was Robert E. Manning, Jr. Although he was respectful toward me and listened to everything I said, Judge Manning didn’t hesitate when it came time to rule on the case. He didn’t bother making any comments about the facts or the law. He simply ruled in favor of the other side and, as was customary, instructed the opposing attorney to prepare a written court order for him to sign.
What frustrated me most about Judge Manning was that he was extremely difficult to read. During the hearing, he sat upright and was very attentive to our arguments. He didn’t show any emotion, and the expression on his face never changed.
Over the years, I routinely appeared before Judge Manning on cases and he was always the same — professional, respectful, and decisive. My only complaint about him was that I could never figure out what he was thinking. He never gave any clues. The inflection and tone of his voice was always the same, and there was no way anyone could figure out what he was thinking from his body language, because he always sat still and upright.
At one point, I learned that Judge Manning was excellent at the game of poker. Of course it didn’t surprise me because there was no way any poker player could ever figure out what he was thinking or what his next move would be.
Judge Manning retired in 1997, 14 years after I began my career as a lawyer. There was only one time during those 14 years that I saw him deviate from his disciplined approach to managing cases. It happened in the early 1990s when I was filing a lot of collection cases on behalf of local medical providers.
I filed a small claims case against a man who was in his 70s for a past due medical bill. He failed to show up for the initial hearing on the case. At my request, the trial judge signed a default “Judgment Order,” which stated that the man owed the amount that the medical provider claimed was due.
I subsequently filed a “Citation to Discover Assets,” which was delivered to the man at his home by a sheriff’s deputy. The purpose of the citation was to force him to come into court and disclose to me everything he owned, including the amount of money he had in his bank accounts, ownership in real estate, investments, etc. Once I secured the information from him, I could then file court documents that would order his bank to turn over money from his bank account to pay the amount that was due. I could also ask the judge to order him to make payments based upon his ability to pay.
When the man showed up in court for the hearing on the Citation to Discover Assets, we met in a room that was located next to the courtroom. He was angry and told me that if I was willing to vacate (reverse) the court judgment, he would give me a check for the amount that was owed to the medical provider. I told him that I was not willing to vacate the judgment because there was no way for me to know whether he had enough funds in his checking account to cover the amount of the check.
He demanded to talk to the judge, so we both went into the courtroom. The judge who was assigned to the courtroom was not there that day. Instead, Judge Manning was there to take care of the scheduled hearings. While I was explaining to Judge Manning what was going on, the man interrupted me and told the judge that he didn’t show up for the previous hearing because he was in the hospital for open heart surgery. He was visibly upset and was shouting.
Without changing the expression on his face, Judge Manning said, “When did you have open heart surgery?” The man replied, “Last month!” Manning then said, “You know that you could be harming your health by getting all worked up like this. We’re going to get this worked out, but first you need to calm down.” The man didn’t know it, but Manning had previously gone through open-heart surgery, so he knew what he was talking about.
Judge Manning looked at me and said, “Mr. Williams, what’s the right thing for you to do in this case?” I responded, “Judge, the right thing for me to do is to protect my client’s interests by insisting that the judgment stay in place until this man’s check clears the bank.” The man erupted with, “I refuse to give him a check until he agrees to vacate the judgment!” Judge Manning looked at the man and said in a calm tone, “Did your doctor tell you that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be put under any stress?” The man answered, “Yes Judge, he did.” “Then you need to listen to your doctor and settle down while we work this out,” said Manning.
Judge Manning looked at me and said, “Let me ask you again, What’s the right thing for you to do in this case?” I reactively said, “Judge, I’m not required by the court rules to vacate the judgment, but I’m willing to voluntarily vacate it after his check clears.” The man blew up again and repeated what he had previously said. Manning didn’t take his eyes off me. He repeated the question, “I know what the rules are. What’s the right thing for you to do in this case?” This time he emphasized the word “right,” which was out of character for him.
After hearing the way he said the word “right,” I realized what he wanted and said, “Judge, the right thing to do is for me to vacate the judgment and accept this man’s check. If it doesn’t clear the bank, I can come back into court and request that you reinstate the judgment. I’ll write up the order if that’s acceptable to you.” Without showing any emotion, Judge Manning said, “That’s acceptable to me, Mr. Williams. Prepare the order and I’ll sign it.”
The man walked over and handed his check to me as I was writing the order. I told him to stick around so he could get a copy of the order. When Judge Manning signed the order, he looked at the man and told him to make sure to take it easy. He didn’t thank me for doing what he wanted. It would have been out of character for him. He simply said, “Have a good day.”
Last Monday (July 22), retired judge, Robert E. Manning, Jr., passed away. At the time of his death, he was 81 years old. When asked about Manning, Peoria County Judge Kevin Lyons told a reporter for the Journal Star, “He was the absolute definition of personal integrity.” Lyons was correct.
But Manning was more than that. He was also the absolute definition of a good Catholic man. He and his wife, Catherine, had seven children. After being sick for an extended period, his wife passed away in 2000, after 46 years of marriage. Manning lovingly cared for his wife prior to her death, never complaining and always remaining positive. A year after his wife died, he married another good Catholic, Rosemary Crowley. He was a member of St. Bernard Catholic Church and served on the church finance committee. He was also a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Robert Manning had all the qualities of a good Catholic man. He was practical, protective, composed, organized, goal-oriented, competitive, judicious, productive, fine-tuned, dignified, stable, hardworking, rational, fair-minded, respectful, tireless, and decisive. He always did the right thing.
The world would be a safer and better place if we had more good Catholic men like Judge Manning. May he rest in peace.