AMERICUS — In the spring of 1972, the plaintiffs in Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education petitioned the Federal Court to find the Board of Education in contempt for not complying with the desegregation orders of Federal District Judge Alexander Lawrence. The contempt motion was assigned to United States Court of Appeals Judge Griffin B. Bell. At that hearing I first saw Augusta lawyers in action, and also witnessed an example of Judge Bell’s genius in resolving thorny legal disputes. I was there as the Judge’s law clerk.
At the hearing in Atlanta that day, the plaintiffs were represented by Jack Ruffin and Jack Greenberg of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Jack Ruffin later became the first African-American judge of the Superior Court of Richmond County and then served until his retirement as a judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals. In 2008, his portrait was permanently displayed in both the Burke County Courthouse and the Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta.) Representing the School Board were attorneys Franklin Pierce and newly minted lawyer Pete Fletcher. (Frank Pierce also became a judge of the Superior Court of Richmond County where he served until his retirement. Pete Fletcher has become the dean of school board attorneys in Georgia and continues to represent the Richmond County Board of Education.) Another Augusta lawyer figuring prominently in the dispute that day was John Fleming who served as president of the School Board. (Mr. Fleming successfully practiced in Augusta for the next 35 years.)
After Court was called to order by the Marshal, Judge Bell directed that the court reporter not take any notes, and he came down from the bench to sit at the clerk’s table close to the lawyers and to the members of the Board of Education who were directed to sit nearby in the jury box. At that point Judge Bell told those assembled that he wanted to talk with them off the record about the duties that each of them had sworn to perform: to uphold and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States. He stressed to them that upholding the Constitution was part of the oath taken by the School Board members just as it was part of the oath that he took as a federal appeals judge. Upholding the Constitution, he said, was not doing only what one might wish the Constitution required or how one might personally understand it. Instead, it meant upholding the Constitution as construed and ordered by the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Bell said that was his duty as a Federal judge and also the duty of each school board member. While the School Board members might disagree, even vehemently, with what had been ordered by the Federal Courts, and while they might even contemplate resisting the Court orders to the point of being held in contempt, that, he said, was not what a law abiding and patriotic American should do.
Then Judge Bell said that to ensure that the Federal Court’s orders were followed, there were two choices: first, the School Board could decide that it would fulfill that duty itself. If it did not, he was not going to order a fine or incarceration of Board members, but instead he would appoint a receiver to displace the School Board members and the receiver would operate the county’s school system. He told the Board that if they had any doubt that he had the power and the inclination to do so, they had only to look up the road at Taliaferro County where he had ordered the school system placed under the receivership of an out-of-state, “Yankee,” college professor.
Judge Bell then suggested that he would withdraw from the courtroom and that the lawyers for both sides along with the School Board should talk among themselves for a while and let him know how they wished to proceed. Thereupon the Judge and all other court personnel left. About an hour later the Marshal knocked at the Judge’s chambers and said that the parties in the courtroom were ready to report back to him. Everyone went back to the courtroom where Court was called to order. At that point the lawyers for both sides reported that after considering all that had occurred, the Richmond County Board of Education would commit to comply with the desegregation orders that had been entered. Hearing that resolution had been reached, Judge Bell dismissed the contempt motion as moot.
This resolution of the Richmond County contempt motion is indicative of Judge Bell’s philosophy about the hundreds of school cases that came before him while he was a Federal judge. He believed that the communities that moved the quickest to integrate their schools and did so with the maximum amount of cooperation rather than litigation would be the communities to which racial harmony and improved education of students would more quickly be restored.
During his public service, Judge Bell was a soldier, adviser to Governors and Presidents, a Federal appeals judge for 15 years, and Attorney General during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Judge Bell’s first encounter with a President-to-be occurred in the fall of 1960, when he went to Washington to meet Sen. John Kennedy. At that time, Bell was a lawyer in Atlanta and had just agreed to serve as co-chairman of the Kennedy Presidential Election Committee for the State of Georgia. During the discussions, Kennedy asked Bell what his denomination was. Bell replied that he was a Baptist. Sen. Kennedy asked if he would have any regrets, being a Baptist, campaigning for a Catholic in the State of Georgia. Bell replied no, but that he did regret that the Senator had to ask. Kennedy carried Georgia by the largest margin of any state.
When Judge Bell was nominated to serve as Attorney General, many who did not know him criticized his appointment and claimed that he had been too soft on integration issues. They were mistaken. On the most critical issue of the era — whether to obey the dictates of Brown v. Board of Education to integrate, Bell helped Gov. Vandiver develop a strategy that worked. Bell engineered the formation of a blue-ribbon panel of advisors headed by Chairman John Sibley that led to wide public agreement to comply with the court orders and keep Georgia’s public schools open. Many had advocated going the defiant way of Alabama and Mississippi. Spurred by Bell and Vandiver’s leadership, Georgians chose a different course that has stood the test of time and history.
They were also mistaken about Judge Bell’s role in literally hundreds of critical civil rights cases in which he was involved in his over 14 years on the Court. Judge Bell was in fact a practical and forceful appellate judge in the dismantling of discrimination in the six Southern states that comprised the Fifth Circuit. Yet 21 Senators, including five Democrats of the President’s own party, voted against his confirmation.
To the country’s benefit, those 21 turned out to be wrong. The office of Attorney General had been marred during the Nixon administration — Attorney General John Mitchell resigned and was convicted in the Watergate scandal. Judge Bell led the Department of Justice to reestablish its reputation as the champion of rule of law and it became known again for absolute integrity and transparency. One guiding concept that Judge Bell stressed as Attorney General, and one that was regrettably ignored both before and after Judge Bell’s tenure, was that the Attorney General was not the lawyer for the President. As Judge Bell made clear, the Attorney General was the lawyer for the United States government and its citizens.
One Senator after another who had voted against his confirmation later apologized for their votes. Sen. Bob Dole told Judge Bell later that his vote against him was one of the worst votes he had ever cast as a United States Senator. When Judge Bell stepped down as Attorney General, then Chief Justice Warren Burger said: “No finer man has ever occupied the great office of Attorney General of the United States or discharged its high duties with greater distinction.”
Throughout the remainder of Judge Bell’s life, he remained in the thick of service to his country, his state and his community. He chaired the American delegation to the “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe” which met in Madrid and Brussels. He was appointed by President George H. W. Bush as vice chair of the Federal Ethics Law Reform Commission. On a pro bono basis he represented a former CIA agent captured and held in Nicaragua. In his private practice he was counsel for some of the most important companies and individuals in the country: President George H. W. Bush himself, E. F. Hutton, Exxon, General Electric and many others. No matter how complex the issue or difficult the resolution, Judge Bell’s stock in trade as a judge, Attorney General and lawyer was always his integrity and his ability to find a common sense solution.
He served as chairman of the Board of Deacons at his church in Atlanta. He was president of the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. He was the initial chairman of the Atlanta Commission on Crime. At the age of 86 he was commissioned as a Major General in the U.S. Army to serve as a judge on the appeal panels for the military commissions to try enemy combatants. He served as Trustee chairman, chair of the Capital Campaign Committee and as a Trustee for over 30 years for his beloved Mercer University.
Wherever he went, he seemed to know someone there and they all seemed to know him. If not, they soon fell under his South Georgia charm. He had a story or anecdote for every occasion. Lawyers throughout the state never saw him as a citified, big firm lawyer, but as one of their own.
A special gift that Judge Bell gave was counsel, encouragement and mentoring to young lawyers and aspiring lawyers. Some were at his law firm, some worked for him on the Court, others worked for him in the Justice Department, and others simply knocked at his door. They all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. I know for I am one of those.
Judge Bell was an avid reader and historian. Throughout his final illness he was surrounded by books, articles and correspondence. Public officials and business leaders continued to seek his advice. After receiving his final diagnosis, he collaborated on the publication this fall of a book of his historical essays entitled “Footnotes to History.” In one of those Judge Bell wrote about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and related these words that Holmes spoke at the death of a friend in 1899, words we do well to remember now:
At the grave of a hero who has done these things we end not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage: and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.
Judge Bell spent his life fighting for justice and the rule of law, for civility, and for the highest standards of ethics. Our nation and state are much better for it. And as Secretary of War Stanton said of Abraham Lincoln: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
David E. Hudson is an Augusta lawyer who served as law clerk to Judge Griffin B. Bell from 1971-1972, and with him on the Board of Trustees of Mercer University.