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Former Attorney General Griffin Bell Dies

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Griffin Bell passed away today. He was Attorney General in the Carter administration and he is credited with helping to restore faith in the Justice Department after the Watergate scandal. Bell also made a significant impact as a judge during the civil rights movement. He was 90 years old. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this remembrance.

NINA TOTENBERG: Griffin Bell served in the eye of the civil rights hurricane of the 1960s and '70s. Beginning in 1961, he served for 15 years on the federal appeals court in the Deep South, the court that dealt with school desegregation and the many other legal questions that exploded during the civil rights revolution. Acting as a bridge between the court's states rights advocates and its more liberal members, Bell was both a strong opponent of busing and a strong advocate of desegregation. His talent, according to historian Jack Bass, was a shrewd pragmatism.

Dr. JACK BASS (Historian): He was a very practical man. When Bell wanted something done, he was very good at figuring out, OK, how do we get it done?

TOTENBERG: In 1970, for instance, when the Supreme Court ordered massive school desegregation in Mississippi, Bell met with the school boards and civil rights lawyers to come up with a plan. As Bass put it, Bell understood that the local school boards needed the protective cover of a court order that forced them to act. In an interview with NPR shortly before his death, Bell recalled that he told the Mississippi school boards that the Supreme Court had ruled schools must be desegregated immediately.

(Soundbite of archive NPR interview)

Mr. GRIFFIN BELL (Former Attorney General): And then, therefore, there were no escape for them. They had to carry out the court's order.

TOTENBERG: In 1976, after returning to private practice, Bell was tapped by his childhood friend President Carter to be attorney general. There were howls of protests from both sides of the aisle. Some Republicans worried that Bell would not be independent. Some Democrats objected because Bell belonged to private clubs that notoriously had no minority members. But within a year of taking over the Justice Department, Bell was the Carter administration's star performer on Capitol Hill. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I trusted him. His word was his bond. He was absolutely honest, straightforward. He kind of talked, you know, in a very low-key, but intelligent way that you just couldn't help but like.

TOTENBERG: At the Justice Department, Bell soon earned the trust and admiration of the career lawyers. He always included them in the decision-making process. And even the ever-skeptical press corps was at least partially won over by two Bell practices. Every day, the attorney general published the previous day's schedule and phone log. As Bell put it in our recent interview:

(Soundbite of archive NPR interview)

Mr. BELL: Trust is the coin of the realm. If the public doesn't trust the Justice Department, we're in trouble. You need to let people know what's going on, and who you're meeting with, and who's influenced you, who's had the chance to influence you.

TOTENBERG: Bell fiercely, and usually with President Carter's agreement, protected the independence of the Justice Department. His fights with the White House staff, however, were constant. On some things, like letting the White House have a say in Supreme Court briefs, he relented. On others, he did not.

(Soundbite of archive NPR interview)

Mr. BELL: And I had to fight all the White House staff. I always won. If it had to go to the president, I'd win every time. But it was just a nuisance to have to do that.

TOTENBERG: In one case, when the president promised Latino groups that the Justice Department would bring a federal prosecution for police brutality, Bell went ballistic, telling the president he had two choices - butt out or fire the attorney general. The president swallowed hard and butted out. There was no federal prosecution.

On the national security front, Bell was viewed as a hardliner within the administration. But he pushed hard for a requirement that electronic surveillances for foreign intelligence be authorized by court warrant. Inside the administration, his argument won out over objections from the CIA and Defense Department. The resulting Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act remained enforced until more than two decades later when President Bush in the wake of 9/11 began circumventing the court authorization requirement.

Upon leaving the Carter administration in 1979, Bell returned to law practice in Atlanta where he ran a large law firm, represented the first President Bush in the Iran contra-investigation, and conducted internal investigations on behalf of major corporations. He continued working until this year when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.