The judge who soon will make a key ruling in House Speaker Bobby Harrell's ethics case is no stranger to high-profile, politically charged cases. But he's also quietly broken barriers on the basketball court and beyond.

Circuit Judge L. Casey Manning

Born: Dec. 7, 1950, in Dillon

Parents: Paul Manning Sr. and Harnethea Bethea Manning

Education: Dillon public schools; bachelor's degree in political science and history from University of South Carolina in 1973; law degree from USC in 1977.

Career: Constable and agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, 1973-74; part-time instructor at Florence-Darlington Technical College, 1980; private law practice in Dillon County, 1979-83; Assistant Attorney General for S. C. 1988-89; partner with Walker, Morgan and Manning in Lexington, 1989-94

First elected as a 5th Circuit Judge: 1994

Current term expires: June 30, 2018

Family: Three children: Charlotte, Casey Jr. and Morgan

Side job: Color analyst for University of South Carolina basketball games

Circuit Judge L. Casey Manning must decide if Harrell, R-Charleston, should have his ethics troubles reviewed by the courts, as S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson would like, or by a group of fellow House members, which Harrell's attorneys want.

If Manning rules for Wilson, he risks angering one of the state's most influential lawmakers, one whose brother, Charleston lawyer John Harrell, has a role in screening judges for reappointment or a spot on a higher state court.

If Manning rules that Harrell's House colleagues should judge his conduct, his ruling could cause an uproar among those who feel the state's ethics system is broken, in part because state lawmakers are in charge of policing themselves - and among those who fear limiting the attorney general's authority to investigate possible crimes.

Manning declined to be interviewed for this story. But those who know him say he won't be rattled about any important decision.

"It's not the first time he's had tough calls to make," said Lexington attorney Jack Duncan, who has known Manning since the two were undergraduates in the political science department at the University of South Carolina, remaining close through USC law school and beyond.

Duncan pointed to Manning's decision that tossed out Republican political activist John Rainey's pursuit of Gov. Nikki Haley over her ethical conduct as a House member.

Manning also presided over the court cases stemming from Richland County's 2012 election fiasco and the case of the ill-fated Compass Academy, a private school in Aiken that never finished construction because of financial irregularities.

Duncan said the political nature of the Harrell case won't have an effect on where Manning comes down.

"As a Circuit Court judge, that's not his job to hold his finger to the wind," Duncan said. "I have not seen him do that."

'So classy'

Many people might be familiar with Manning through his radio work as an even-keeled color commentator for the University of South Carolina's basketball games.

Manning, the university's first black basketball player, played during the heyday of the school's hoops program led by revered coach Frank McGuire.

During the 1973 season, Manning played under future College of Charleston basketball coach Bobby Cremins, who sensed that Manning was someone special.

Cremins, who was then an assistant coach at USC, said he saw someone with an easy demeanor who was calm and relaxed in what could have been a very stressful time.

"He kind of didn't make a big thing about it," said Cremins. "But it was a big thing. He broke the color barrier."

Manning played less than a decade after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, but his skills on the court were not necessarily impressive enough to silence those who remained suspicious about integration.

"He was a good player," Cremins said, "but he was not a great player."

"It had to be a tough challenge for him, to be the first one," Cremins said. "Frank McGuire loved him. He loved him because he was so classy."

Cremins said he saw traits in Manning, even as a player, that foreshadowed the success that he would become.

"His cleverness. Academically he was very smart. Everybody knew Casey was going places, that someday he would be something. You could just tell that."

'Always very deliberate'

Those who have worked with Manning or in front of him say he's brought that similar sense of class and calmness to the bench, even when presiding over trials of murder, rape and other violent acts.

"From what I know of him, he's not afraid to make the call. He's not known to be timid," said state Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, an attorney. "You probably couldn't pick a better judge for this (Harrell-Wilson) case."

Duncan also described Manning as someone with a variety of experiences, including service as a State Law Enforcement Division agent, working at Grand Canyon National Park, and years spent as a prosecutor, assistant attorney general and practicing lawyer who worked everything from personal injury cases to state and federal criminal defense.

"His legal reasoning was always very deliberate," Duncan said. "He never took a position until he knew the law."

Others said Manning also likes to pepper the seriousness of a case with efforts to make visitors to his courtroom feel at ease.

"He has a unique ability to guess at one's origins and frequently asks clients and lawyers appearing before him where they are from," said E. Fielding Pringle, chief public defender for Richland County.

"If he has met a client before, even many years before, he will often remember the client's hometown and other facts about the client and his life that most would have long ago forgotten."

"In my experience representing indigent defendants in Richland County, he has always demonstrated respect and dignity to every client," she said, "even in the most challenging situations."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5771.