Robert Manekin’s relatively brief law career reaches back to serving on the student court system at a public university in the tumultuous late 1960s. It followed a trajectory that landed him at the Pearl Harbor desk of a legendary naval officer, where it essentially ended.
Over that time span of a decade Manekin represented urban tenants in rent escrow cases as a University of Maryland law student, mastered what he called the “bomb letter” fighting for sailors against a San Diego gym’s billing practices, and even included the prosecution of a rare high-profile trespassing case.
“It was a great experience. But as much as I enjoyed it — I liked litigation — I came to the conclusion I’d rather be the client,” Manekin said.
Manekin, despite not practicing law in decades, still has managed to influence Maryland’s legal community as a commercial real estate executive. On Tuesday the Maryland Legal Aid’s Equal Justice Council honored him as a “Champion of Justice.”
Now a senior vice president at JLL in Baltimore, Manekin received the award in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the fundraising arm of Maryland Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to underserved residents.
Appointed to the council in 2013, Manekin is the first non-practicing attorney to serve on that body. His service to the council includes calling on his experience in commercial real estate to help with leases and raising significant money for the organization.
While Manekin left practicing the law behind years ago, it still provided some of his most interesting experiences.
‘It was a big deal’
As a Navy officer in Pearl Harbor in the late 1970s he served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps as both a “system trial counsel,” essentially a prosecutor, and then as a defense counsel. Manekin also joined what was a joint pilot program where attorneys in the JAG Corps were appointed as special assistant U.S. attorneys.
“Between the Department of Justice and Department of Defense they selected Hawaii as the place to do it because nobody’s driving over state lines. I mean, you’re there,” Manekin said.
Their primary role, Manekin said, was handling civilian misdemeanor charges on military bases. It was precisely one of these low-level charges, however, that put Manekin on a court case that native Hawaiians consider a pivotal moment in their political activism.
Members of a group called Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana started to occupy that island in 1976 to stop the Navy from bombing and shelling Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, the so-called “Target Island.”
In June of 1977 six members of Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, after being warned the year before to stay away, returned to the island. They were charged with trespassing in federal district court.
“And it was all over the islands. I mean, it was on TV … it was a big deal,” Manekin said.
During the trial of the six activists an exchange between Manekin and Walter L. Ritte Jr., now something of a revered Native Hawaiian activist, provided a seminal moment for the movement.
“Is it not true that you were politically, as well as spiritually, motivated to go on the island?” Manekin asked Ritte, according to Jeffrey Tobin’s 1994 book “Cultural Construction and Native Nationalism: Report from the Hawaiian Front.”
“I was motivated because I am Hawaiian,” Ritte replied.
Manekin still won convictions against the six activists. Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. issued sentences ranging from a pair of suspended 60-day sentences and three years of probation to six months’ imprisonment and a $500 fine given to Ritte and one other activist.
During his time in the JAG Corps, Manekin also defended the Navy against environmental litigation. After defeating an activist group’s request for a temporary restraining order, Manekin, a lieutenant, received a phone call from a commander.
The commander told Mankein that Vice Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. wanted him to come to his office on Ford Island the next morning at 8 a.m. to discuss the impact of the ruling.
Gravely, among a litany of accomplishments, was the first African American to command a U.S. Navy warship, the first African American to command a U.S. Fleet and the first African American admiral.
The next day at 8 a.m. when Manekin walked into Gravely’s office he discovered the vice admiral was a very large man, about 6-feet 4-inches, who when he stood up, dressed in his tropical white uniform, Mankein said, “blocked out the sun.”
Gravely asked Manekin to take a seat, and said, “So, lieutenant, congratulations. I understand we did very well yesterday.”
Manekin agreed with his superior officer, who then asked him to explain the implications of the ruling.
The lieutenant responded “Sir, what do you mean?”
The admiral looked at him and asked the question in an even more direct manner, “What can I do now?”
“I knew the moment that a vice admiral was asking a Navy lieutenant what he could do, it doesn’t get any better … and it was time to get out,” Manekin said.
Enjoying it too much
Manekin admits to having a competitive personality. As a kid playing Little League, he said, umpires he believed were goofing off caused him a fair share of aggravation. The courtroom’s combination of sport and theater, Manekin discovered, made it hard to leave work at the office.
“I was enjoying litigation too much … I was doing direct cross-exam (in my head) while I was jogging back in the day, and in order to be a great litigator, you have to be able to leave it at the office, or have a cast-iron stomach, and I have neither,” he said.
After leaving the Navy, Manekin, the son of Bernard Manekin co-founder of the firm Manekin & Co., one of the companyies most responsible for shaping modern Baltimore, said his father provided a model to follow.
“My father went to law school, and decided at some point in time that if he didn’t like practicing law, he would go into business, and that’s what he did,” Manekin said. “So I had a role model, who basically gave me carte blanche to go to law school, practice law, see if I liked it, if I liked it great. If I didn’t like it, there was there was no problem changing careers, which is what I did.”
In the intervening 42 years, including stops at the Staubach Company, The Studley Organization, and Colliers International, Manekin forged his own course.
Manekin, who turns 70 this week, never lost his competitive spirit. He said he still arrives at JLL’s Pratt Street offices by 6:30 a.m., is the last one out the door in the evening, and even works on weekends.
He still takes handwritten notes in Moleskine notebooks. Ever a technology enthusiast — his first computer in 1979 was a Xerox 820 — he scans those notes into Evernote with his smartphone.
“I like working with people in different situations, whether it was seven years in property management, or it was the eight years in development … or providing services, transactional services and consulting services … (to) all sorts of professional clients, whether they’re law firms, whether they’re hospital systems, whether they’re universities — real estate has everything,” he said.