Jeffrey Manning elected president judge in Allegheny County

A portrait of Judge Jeffrey Manning on the bench at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
A portrait of Judge Jeffrey Manning on the bench at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
Photo by Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
| Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, 1:09 p.m.

If the Allegheny County Courthouse has a town square for lawyers and judges, it's Room 325, the office that contains Judge Jeffrey A. Manning's chambers.

The room can get raucous as attorneys and judges tell jokes, trade stories and catch a break from court business. The atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the large courtroom on the other side of a wooden door, where Manning enforces strict rules of decorum and will dress down even the most seasoned lawyer who fails to honor them.

“Otherwise, people lose respect for what's happening,” said Manning, 66, of Mt. Lebanon, whom fellow judges on Friday elected as the county's Common Pleas president judge.

Manning built a reputation as a disciplinarian in running his courtroom, and during five years as administrative judge made the criminal division more efficient.

Those who know him say he's a loyal friend, devoted grandfather, and consummate entertainer who once sang James Brown songs at a Bar Association getaway.

“He loves coming here every day,” said his wife, defense attorney Olga Salvatori, often a presence around his office.

In 25 years on the bench, Manning presided over some of the county's most notorious criminal trials, including 21 death penalty cases. Lawyers and fellow judges say even those who don't like his sometimes-brash style rarely can argue with the legal basis of his decisions.

“He's the best jurist on the bench in the whole state,” said Gov. Tom Corbett, whose friendship with Manning dates to their work together in the District Attorney's Office and U.S. Attorney's Office starting in the 1970s. “I'm glad his colleagues have seen his ability to be an administrator.”

County judges met in private and elected Manning to lead the state's second-largest court system for five years.

His legal career began in the District Attorney's Office 40 years ago.

“He was probably one of the most talented trial lawyers I ever bumped into,” said attorney Walter Bunt Jr., a partner at K&L Gates who went to high school with Manning in Monroeville.

Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, another longtime friend, said Manning could have made a lot of money in private practice “because juries loved him.”

Manning said he learned the importance of public service from his father.

“All the judges here, they could make money, but they decided to serve,” he said.

In the U.S. Attorney's Office, he handled prosecutions such as a three-month heroin trafficking case in Erie with Corbett.

“He has an innate ability to understand a case and present it to a jury,” said Corbett, who will meet Manning for a drink Downtown when he's in town. “And he has an unbelievable memory for details.”

When Manning joined the bench in 1988, the late Judge Robert Dauer — a mentor to Manning — assigned him significant cases. Manning brought from federal court an emphasis on decorum and an aversion to mandatory sentencing guidelines.

“Sentencing is not a one-size-fits-all process,” he said.

From the bench, and as a longtime adjunct professor at Duquesne University, he teaches students and young lawyers to be prepared and show respect in the courtroom.

“He suffers fools badly,” said Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus, who considers Manning among his closest friends.

“If you're not prepared in his courtroom, you're in trouble,” Thomassey said.

Nauhaus noted Manning's style has earned him detractors. Manning faced a high-profile controversy 17 years ago when two people accused him of using the N-word in separate incidents, including at an airport gate with a former wife. The state Court of Judicial Discipline cleared him of the accusations.

“In a job like this, you're going to get shot at. I've been shot at,” Manning said.

He was criticized for the informal helper role that Salvatori, his fourth wife, assumed during the 2011 death-penalty trial of cop-killer Richard Poplawski. She said her husband is a stickler for rules and can treat all lawyers — even friends — sternly in court.

“Jeffrey has grown from those experiences,” Bunt said, noting improvements Manning initiated as administrative judge to improve case flow.

Manning instituted what he dubbed “the Phoenix Docket System” that assigns minor cases with no victims to two judges who try to quickly dispose of them. He started hearing most bail hearings and other miscellaneous motions himself, to enable other judges to focus on trials.

In 2009, the criminal division had more than 14,000 active cases in a given month. That's down to 8,000. He pushes judges to dispose of more cases than they get each month, and posts numbers.

As president judge he wants to improve the physical facilities for juries and others in the courts, and bring some of his efficiency systems to other divisions, such as Family Court.

“I've often said, along with Judge (David R.) Cashman, who was a rower too, that the court system is like competitive rowing,” Manning said. “Everyone has an oar. If you pull too hard, you upset the boat. If you don't pull enough you upset the boat.”

David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or Staff writer Bobby Kerlik contributed.

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