Bell, Griffin Boyette

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Bell, Griffin Boyette

Griffin Boyette Bell served as U.S. attorney general from 1977 to 1979 under President jimmy carter and before that from 1961 to 1976 as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He is also nationally recognized for his skills as a corporate lawyer.

Bell was born October 31, 1918, in Americus, Georgia, only 12 miles from Plains, Georgia, the boyhood home of Carter. (In fact, Carter and Bell knew each other as children.) Bell served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he studied at Mercer University Law School, graduating cum laude in 1948. He gained admission to the Georgia bar in 1947.

Bell practiced law in Savannah, Georgia, and Rome, Georgia, from 1947 to 1953, after which he moved to Atlanta to work in the prestigious firm of King and Spalding, where he eventually earned the position of managing partner. Bell also became involved in politics, serving from 1959 to 1961 as chief of staff to Governor S. Ernest Vandiver, of Georgia.

School Desegregation was a heated issue at the time. Governor Vandiver vigorously opposed desegregation, inventing the slogan "No, Not One" to symbolize his goal of keeping Georgia's schools completely segregated. Bell acted as a moderating influence on Vandiver, working behind the scenes to ease tensions with African American leaders. Eventually, Vandiver and the Georgia legislature agreed to conditional desegregation.

Bell served as cochairman of the Georgia election campaign in 1960 for john f. kennedy. His success at that task won him an appointment as judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1961, a position he held through 1976. During his 15 years on the bench, he took part in over 3,000 cases, 141 of them involving school desegregation.

Observers have categorized Bell's judicial decisions as moderate to conservative. He generally supported Civil Rights advocates in employment and voting rights cases, but he opposed busing as a means to achieve school desegregation. At times, his decisions could have been described as liberal, as when he supported attempts to place more African Americans on juries and approved Affirmative Action hiring for the Mississippi Highway Patrol. His most influential work was the initiation of a reform scheme that improved the efficiency of the court system.

Bell also served as cochairman of the Atlanta Commission on Crime and Delinquency from 1965 to 1966. He resigned from the appeals court in 1976, resumed private practice, and served as legal adviser to Carter during Carter's presidential campaign that year. Once elected as president, Carter named Bell attorney general, a move that disappointed those who had hoped Carter would appoint an African American or a woman to the office. Bell's nomination ran into trouble when it was revealed that he belonged to three clubs that were in effect racially segregated. Bell agreed to quit the clubs and was nominated to the post of attorney general on January 25, 1977.

"If you believe in exalting the Bill of Rights … youhaveto be for the individual, even if it means being against the government."
—Griffin Bell

Upon taking office, Bell defused some of the opposition to his appointment by naming African Americans to the posts of Solicitor general and assistant attorney general. He also appointed women to other key positions in the department and to federal judgeships. Later, Bell proudly pointed out that 41 women were appointed and confirmed to the federal bench during the Carter administration, producing an eightfold increase in the number of federal judgeships occupied by women. As attorney general, Bell again championed court reform and also pushed for greater Federal Bureau of Investigation involvement in pursuing white-collar, narcotics, and antitrust violations.

Bell resigned as attorney general in 1979 and resumed his work in private practice as senior partner at King and Spalding. Bell has been called on frequently by Fortune 500 corporations for advice on difficult legal issues. He led independent investigations of Exxon Corporation's actions following a 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska, and, in 1992, Dow Corning Corporation's handling of lawsuits resulting from its silicone breast implants. In the early 2000s Bell continued to focus on giving advice and counsel on matters relating to corporate crime. His organization of the firm's Special Matters Group assembled lawyers with a wide variety of experience in representing corporations charged with civil or corporate wrongdoing. He served as an arbitrator on two international Arbitration panels as well as an advisor on several major corporate litigation cases.

Bell served as cochairman of the National Task Force on Violent Crime in 1981 and cochairman of the Committee on Federal Ethics in 1989. He has also served as president of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Bell received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Mercer University in 1967 and the Order of the Coif from Vanderbilt Law School. In 1982, he published Taking Care of the Law, which relates his experiences as attorney general and sets forth his recommendations for legal reform and the reduction of government bureaucracy.

After the September 11th Attacks of 2001, Bell wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal addressing the issue of the curtailment of civil liberties. In November 2001 he testified on the same issue before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In February 2003, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon, in response to complaints from some lawmakers and civil liberties groups, planned to create an oversight board and outside advisory committee to track the activity of a global data-surveillance research program known as the Total Information Awareness Project. Griffin Bell was named to the advisory committee that would advise the secretary of defense on the social and legal implications of the new surveillance technology.

Further readings

Baker, Nancy V. 1992. Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789–1990. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Bell, Griffin B. 1978. "The Attorney General: The Federal Government's Chief Lawyer and Chief Litigator, or One Among Many?" Fordham Law Review 46 (May).

Bell, Griffin B., with Ronald J. Ostrow. 1982. Taking Care of the Law. New York: Morrow. Reprint 1986. Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press.

Blum, Andrew. 1993. "In Bell Probe for Dow, Bid Made for Implant Papers." National Law Journal (February 1).

——. 1989. "Valdez Captain Takes Offensive." National Law Journal (October 23).

Dillard, Stephen Louis A. 2003. "Griffin Bell" in Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia. Edited by John R. Vile. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio. Reprinted online at <> (accessed August 27, 2003).

Justice Department. 1991. 200th Anniversary of the Office of the Attorney General, 1789–1989. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, Office of Attorney General and Justice Management Division.

Murphy, Reg. 1999. Uncommon Sense: The Achievement of Griffin Bell. Atlanta, Ga.: Longstreet.