Two weeks before Judge Bell died, I took two colleagues from Mercer to visit him at his home in Americus. Pulling up to his long driveway, we were greeted by a handsome two-story brick house standing in the middle of a nearly barren field sparsely dotted with pine trees. That field had once been covered with trees, but a tornado that had sliced through Americus not long ago had snapped just about every tree in Judge Bell’s yard. At the center of the field, Judge Bell’s house stood unscathed. The tornado hadn’t so much as scratched the paint.
One of the colleagues who went with me that day, a bright young English professor named Andrew Silver, sent me a message earlier this week when he learned of Judge Bell’s death. He observed that the scene at Judge Bell’s house that day was a good metaphor for the judge’s life.
When two of the most turbulent political storms of the past century swept through America – desegregation in the South, and the Watergate scandal in Washington – we as a people turned to Judge Bell, and there he stood firm, unscathed, and unbending against the storm, guarding the highest and best principles of American law and our constitutional republic.
Judge Bell believed in the nobility, neutrality, and independence of the law. He was a student of the legendary lawyers who helped found and shape our nation – Adams, Jefferson and Marshall. Madison and Monroe. Lincoln and Holmes. He admired them for their patriotism and their commitment to serving our nation. He admired them for their independence. Describing Holmes, Judge Bell wrote that he “was his own man. Sometimes he was thought of as a liberal and at other times a conservative.” He admired them for their practical wisdom. Praising John Marshall, Judge Bell wrote that Marshall “did not think or write in an ivory tower.”
Judge Bell was committed to preserving their vision of a nation of checks and balances – a moderate nation which slowly embraces progressive change, while always endeavoring to preserve its fundamental values and principles. These great lawyers made Judge Bell proud to be a lawyer, just as Judge Bell has made scores of lawyers from my generation proud of our profession. He viewed the law as a sacred calling – as perhaps the most noble of all professions because of the opportunity and, indeed, obligation lawyers have to serve our system of justice.
That day in Americus, I asked Judge Bell which of his extraordinary professional accomplishments made him the most proud. Was it helping to build one of the finest law firms in the world? Was it his role as a leading member of the powerful United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in bringing an end to segregation in the South? Was it his work as Attorney General during President Carter’s administration to restore public confidence in the independence and the integrity of the United States Department of Justice following the abuses of Watergate?
After my question, he paused for a moment. And then in his distinctive, elegant Americus drawl, he replied: “It’s hard to say. It’s hard to compare them,” he said. “Those things that you mention are historic.”
Then he volunteered the story of a murder case he defended for free early in his career, while he was practicing law in Savannah. Judge Bell asked the prosecutor to send the bullet found in the victim’s body off to a state crime lab to see, as he put it, “if the bullet in the dead man’s body came from my man’s pistol.” The prosecutor refused, so Judge Bell got a court order to have the bullet tested. When the results showed that the bullet didn’t match the gun of the accused man, Judge Bell thought that surely the prosecutor would drop the charges. He didn’t “He went right on with it,” Judge Bell told us. “And he said – I’ll never forget what he said – I’m going to burn your man.” Judge Bell tried the case to a jury and, after fifteen minutes of deliberation, it returned a verdict of not guilty. Judge Bell looked at us and said, “Well, you know, I thought that was a great thing.”
It was a great thing. Perhaps the greatest public service that any lawyer can give is to strive to make our system of justice work. That day in Savannah, it did.
Judge Bell never forgot where he came from. He never lost his grounding. And he never forgot the people he knew along the way. As far as I could tell, he never seemed to forget anything.
He returned to his partners at King & Spalding after his service on the Fifth Circuit, and then returned again to his home at the firm after his service as Attorney General. After living in the great cities of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., he ultimately returned to his home in Americus to live his final days where he had been raised. And he never forgot the institution that gave him his start in the law. After graduating from Mercer University’s law school in 1948, Judge Bell returned to join Mercer’s board of trustees for the first time in 1967. And he kept coming back.
Earlier this week, I was asked by a reporter for National Public Radio what it meant to have someone of Judge Bell’s stature lend his name to the University. That reporter obviously didn’t know Judge Bell. Judge Bell didn’t just lend his name to anything. That’s not how he worked. When Judge Bell joined Mercer’s governing board, he gave himself fully to the task of building a great university. He committed his time. He committed his talent. He committed his resources. Over the next 41 years, he served six full five-year terms on Mercer’s board, including four years as Chairman of the Board.
Given the qualities that made Judge Bell a treasured advisor and confidant to presidents, governors, legislators and business leaders, as you would expect, Judge Bell quickly became one of the most influential members of Mercer’s board. Over the past four decades, he helped lead Mercer University through a remarkable transformation, from a small school in Macon with fewer than 2,000 students to an emerging research university, with a statewide presence and nearly 8,000 students. It was Judge Bell who moved to found the Mercer School of Medicine in partnership with the State of Georgia. As chair of two Mercer capital campaigns, Judge Bell helped raise more than $500 million to support the work of the University. And this past April, it was Judge Bell who made the motion to approve a new strategic plan intended to raise Mercer’s national academic profile to the level of the other premier private research universities in the South.
When Judge Bell’s last term was about to expire in December of 2007, his friend, former law clerk, and then Chair of Mercer’s board, David Hudson proposed that we name Judge Bell a life trustee – the highest honor that the Mercer board can bestow – so that he wouldn’t have to rotate off the board as required by our bylaws. Over the course of Mercer’s 175-year history, only five individuals had previously been named life trustees.
When we approached Judge Bell about this high honor, he turned us down. “I don’t want to be a life trustee,” he said. “I want to be a real trustee.” Life trustees didn’t have a vote, and Judge Bell wasn’t interested in any honorary appointment. So we regrouped. The board amended the bylaws to make life trustees voting trustees. Then by acclamation, the board declared Judge Bell a life trustee.
Our most recent board of trustees meeting at Mercer took place in Macon on December 4. Six months prior to the meeting, Judge Bell learned that he had at most a few months to live. Yet there he was six months later, sitting in his usual place at the annual meeting of the Mercer Board of Trustees, the most engaged person in the room, posing for pictures with his friends and colleagues, signing copies of his newly published book Footnotes to History, critiquing the work of an artist who had just completed a bust of Judge Bell, regaling his fellow trustees with an impromptu roast of his old friend and law partner, Bob Steed, who had just been nominated to serve as a life trustee, and finally, closing the meeting with a moving farewell to his friends and colleagues on the Board.
He told us that he loved Mercer. And he told us that he loved King & Spalding. He said it meant a great deal to him to know that he had friends at the law firm he could always go back to. He expressed gratitude for the opportunities he’d had to serve. He told us that he had lived a great life, and that he was “well-satisfied” that the Lord had given him a square deal. Then he stood, and he waved good bye.
Earlier this week I drove by that stately two-story brick house in Americus – the one that had stood amidst the tornado. It’s still there standing strong. I thought about my young colleague’s metaphor, and considered that perhaps the metaphor doesn’t work, because Judge Bell’s no longer with us. But then I realized, that in a very real sense, Judge Bell is still here among us, as strong and unbowed as ever. He lives on through the lives of the many of us who have been influenced by his example. He lives on through the great institutions that he helped build and mold. And most of all, he lives on through the lives of his beloved family – through Nancy, and Griffin, Jr., and all of his family members.
So, today, as we gather to celebrate the life of our loved one, our family member, our hero, our colleague, our friend, we should not conclude this ceremony with sorrow over our loss. But instead in the words of his hero Holmes, we should conclude “with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.”