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.