Goal-oriented: Former assistant prosecutor takes a step up to judgeship

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News


Growing up in Goodrich as a youngster, Jennifer Manley set a series of career goals that was ambitious yet attainable. She wanted to go to law school, pass the bar, and become an attorney.

Along the way, she adjusted and furthered those goals to include working as an assistant prosecutor. But at the end of that wish list she always thought of becoming a judge as her ultimate goal. Reaching those initial goals took time, hard work, and determination. But it was through those initial steps that Manley was finally able to complete her career bucket list.

Last November, Manley was elected as judge to the 67th Genesee County District Court bench. The judgeship includes the communities of Davison, Burton, Otisville and her hometown of Goodrich, as well as the townships of Davison, Forest, and Richfield.

Manley, 40, was born in Detroit but was raised in Goodrich, arriving here while in the third grade. It became her home, and where her dreams were cultivated.

“I’ve always wanted to be an attorney,” Manley said. Part of that came from her reading legal novels, and watching shows about the law. “I was always interested in the law.”

But perhaps the biggest push came when she was at Goodrich High School and was selected to take part in the Law Day functions, sponsored by the Genesee County Bar Association.

“I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the attorneys for a mock trial in Genesee County Circuit Court, and I loved it,” she said. “And then, through high school on, there was no question I wanted to become an attorney. And, I actually wanted to become a prosecutor.”

After graduating from high school in 1992, Manley started at Michigan State University, but transferred to a Christian college in Farmington Hills and graduated with a major in communications. Manley then entered Cooley Law School in 1996, graduating in 1998.

“I wanted to practice criminal law right from the get-go, because it was so interesting,” she said.

She relished classes in criminal law, criminal procedure and constitutional law. That love led her to volunteer in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office in her second term of law school. She stayed there as an intern throughout law school.

Manley remained at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office for a short time, but applied to the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office while waiting for the results of the  bar exam.

“Genesee County had been my home since I was in the third grade, and that was my first choice of any job,” she said. “It was like a dream come true.”

Like all young assistant prosecutors, Manley started in district court, writing warrants, working on misdemeanor cases, and conducting preliminary examinations.

She continued to move up the ladder there, eventually working in circuit court for different judges there and handling felony cases. Manley was then moved to the major crimes unit, trying many high-publicity cases such as murder, rapes, robberies, and child abuse.

“Doing trials was my passion, and it still is,” she said. “I also loved the preparation of the case, putting all the pieces together, working with the office in charge.”

Manley’s courtroom demeanor was never bombastic, loud, confrontational, or antagonistic. Other prosecutors, and many defense attorneys, may use that to their advantage, but not Manley.

“Even through all my years in the Prosecutor’s Office, I don’t think it changed me,” she said. “You may not be as naïve as when you started, but you learn that people are people, and I cared about everybody.”

While at the Prosecutor’s Office, Manley had many mentors among her peers.

“In the office, we were such a team,” she said. “When you’re in the middle of a high-profile case, anyone is going to need some input.”

But in 2012, Manley decided to leave the Prosecutor’s Office to start her run for a judgeship. She had married prominent local defense attorney Frank Manley the year before, and went to work as a partner in his firm. Leaving the Prosecutor’s Office was difficult, but she felt it needed to be done to enhance her quest for becoming a judge.

“I wasn’t positive on how that would come about, but I wanted to broaden my legal experience,” she said. “Leaving a job I knew and loved was hard, and there was security there. But I was very fortunate because I was able to come in as a partner to a successful and established law firm.”

Eventually, she was able to realize her dream in her first-ever run for a political office, but it was a tough road. Manley came in as the top vote-getter in the August primary, and won the job in the November election. Along the way, her past experience, reputation and networking allowed her to garner many endorsements, including that of a dozen current sitting district and circuit court judges, police associations, and labor groups.

“Becoming a judge was always like a faraway dream as I thought about my future, but I just loved the law,” she said. “ After I was elected, I received so many calls from people who knew me back then who reminded me that it was something I’ve talked about since law school.”

Manley, who has two adopted children, ages 8 and 6, from a previous marriage, said she is going to concentrate some of her efforts on public education and schools. To Manley, public service is very important.

“It’s a privilege to serve the public, and I take it very seriously,” she said. “It’s not like the public owes us something. And I want to be there for the public, not just on the bench, but also in the community.”

She said replacing retiring Judge John Conover will be a hard act to follow.

“He was a fabulous judge, and he ran maybe the most efficient courtroom in the state of Michigan,” Manley said. “And I want to be able to make an impact in the community I’m in, and in Genesee County.”

Her swearing-in will be January 20 at Goodrich High School, and she’s already attended some training in Lansing, sat in with several current 67th District judges, and will attend judge school later this month. Her first day on the bench will be January 2.

She will be the first female judge in this particular district. Another former assistant Genesee County Prosecutor, Vikki Bayeh-Haley, also was elected to the 67th District Court bench, the first female in that division also. She said she is awed, excited, and anxious to begin a new chapter of her career.

“But it feels strangely comfortable that I’m doing something in a place where I’m at every singe day,” she said. “I’ve been at the prosecutor’s table, the defense table, and now I’m going to the judge’s seat.”

Her goal is to maintain respect for all parties and attorneys, be fair, and be the best judge she can be.

“If this is the last chapter of my book, I’m happy,” she said. “I don’t have any goals beyond here. This is home. I wanted to go to law school, be an attorney, be a prosecutor, and now I get to be a judge in my hometown.”

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