SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Daniel A. Manion, whose nomination to the federal appeals court in Chicago has touched off a savage partisan battle and split the Senate down the middle, receives surprisingly high marks from political foes and friends alike here in his home state for both his integrity and his legal talents.
Back in Washington, Manion is portrayed by Democrats and a handful of liberal Republicans as a mediocre lawyer unfit to join the federal judiciary at the level just below the Supreme Court.
Senate opponents, who hope to sink his nomination this week after having narrowly lost a preliminary vote July 2, are backed by a raft of law school deans and reform-minded Chicago lawyers who challenge Manion's limited experience in federal court, criticize his writing ability and question his willingness to adhere to Supreme Court rulings.
Yet to many who have dealt personally with the 44-year-old Manion, all that is a bum rap.
Manion, his supporters contend, is actually a competent lawyer who has become a pawn in a larger Democratic campaign to keep President Reagan from placing qualified conservatives on the federal bench.
While acknowledging a touch of local bias, Manion's defenders here--notably Democratic lawyers, judges and former state Senate colleagues--insist that the amiable, soft-spoken South Bend attorney would be a credit to the federal appeals court.
David T. Ready, a former U.S. attorney and self-described liberal Democrat, said Republican Manion possesses the required "temperament, legal intellect, experience, fair-mindedness, judicial integrity and plain, old-fashioned willingness to work long and hard."
In fact, the real Manion may be less than coruscating, but his nomination also appears to be less than the travesty his critics suggest.
Interviews here and in Chicago and Washington, coupled with an examination of Manion's professional record, suggest an able though scarcely brilliant attorney who has become caught up in a partisan brawl.
The struggle over Manion derives extra intensity from the fact that the larger battle over judicial nominations will shape the federal courts for years to come. With 2 1/2 years still to go in his second term, Reagan has already named 267 of the 752 judges on the federal bench--the district courts, circuit courts of appeals and the Supreme Court.
Thus, while Democrats insist that their challenge to Manion rests strictly on questions about his personal qualifications, he also appears to symbolize what many liberals see as an extreme effort by the Reagan Administration to make sure that all judicial appointees meet strict standards of ideological conformity.
"In nobody's memory has an administration tried to put in sitting judges who have prejudged all the issues," complained television producer Norman Lear, head of People for the American Way, which has opposed Manion and many other Reagan court appointments.
Here in Indiana, Manion's list of supporters includes Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame and former chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; former Democratic Sen. Vance Hartke; present and former state senators; a respected Democratic judge; the chairman of the county Democratic committee here, and Democratic attorneys who have worked with and against Manion in lawsuits.
John W. Montgomery, a longtime state judge and Democratic leader here, asserts that Manion is being unjustly portrayed as an "incompetent small-town lawyer" and an ideological copy of his late father, Clarence Manion, a prominent official of the John Birch Society.
"Dan Manion is qualified. If he were not, I have enough principle about me not to say that he is," the crusty Montgomery wrote to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who is managing the opposition to Manion on the Senate floor.
Attorney Douglas McFadden, a Democrat with offices in Indianapolis and Washington, said he developed "high regard" for Manion while competing with him in a complex securities fraud suit that was settled out of court--"very favorably" for Manion's client, according to another admiring attorney in the case.
"Not everybody appointed to the federal appeals court is going to be a Justice (Oliver Wendell) Holmes," McFadden said, "but I think Dan will bring to the bench a very practical, level-headed, fair approach."
Doug Hunt, a liberal Democrat who served a four-year term with Manion in the state Senate, called him "a hell of a good guy who has all of the qualities of intellect and character for the position he has been nominated to." Hunt discounted Manion's much-criticized support of a "flaky bill" that would have allowed the 10 Commandments to be posted in public schools despite a Supreme Court decision barring the required posting of such a document.
'Score Like Diver'