Remarks of Judge Griffin B. Bell
Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees
December 4, 2008
Near the end of the meeting, President Underwood and Chairman Hatcher unveiled a bust of Judge Bell — commissioned by the University — that will be placed at the entrance to the Griffin B. Bell Boardroom in the University Center on the Macon campus. After the general applause subsided, Judge Bell responded with the following impromptu recollection of his career and his life-long association with Mercer:
This is quite a surprise. I’m glad to say that I brought my wife with me — she can look at this, and might think more of me. At least, I hope so.
It’s been my great pleasure to serve all these years on the Mercer Board, off and on, as a Trustee. I love Mercer.
I came here to law school — I planned to come here before World War II, and I had to leave to go into the service and never got here. I was on the way to the University of Georgia. I came through Macon, and I said to my wife (by that time I was married), "I believe I’ll stop here and see the Dean at Mercer — see if he’ll get me a job with a law firm while I’m going to school, and I can get ahead like that." Dean Field was the Dean then, and he said, "I’ll guarantee you a job after one quarter if you’ll make good grades." Well, I did, and he got me a job. I realized later that he really didn’t do me any great favor — every firm in town was looking for a lawyer. (Laughter) All the lawyers had dropped out of school to go into the service, and there were hardly any lawyers left to practice.
Anyway, I got this job and went to work checking land titles. I went all over this part of Georgia checking land titles, and I had all kinds of experiences. Once, I went to a small town near here and the courthouse was locked on a Monday, and I couldn’t get in. I found out the clerk of the court had closed the courthouse to go to Gene Talmadge’s funeral, which was quite an unusual thing, I thought. At any rate, it happened — the man’s name was Wilbur C_____ . So, I went over there the next day to check the same title I had gone over the day before to check, and Mr. Wilbur said he was glad to see me, we exchanged greetings, and I said, "That was a most unusual thing you did yesterday. It’s a long way to McRae from here, and struck me as sort of unusual for you to be going that far to a funeral." I’ll never forget what he said — he said, "It means a lot to be seen at a funeral like that." (Laughter) He was very sincere about it. I asked a lawyer over there about it, and he said, "Well, that’s the way he is. He goes to every funeral."
At any rate, I got a job with a law firm in Macon — I passed the bar a year before I got out of law school. And the first job I had was as the city attorney of Warner Robins, Georgia, a small town near here (it’s getting larger now). The Mayor said, "We can’t pay you anything, but we’ll get you a lot of business." I think I got two divorce cases, so it wasn’t exactly that great a thing. (Laughter) Later, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town, they got in touch with me (by that time, I was a federal judge) and asked me to come and be honored at the anniversary celebration. So, I did — had my picture in the paper and everything — and that was my first notoriety of any kind as a public official ... City Attorney of Warner Robins.
One thing led to another and I kept moving around, changing jobs often. The President of the Georgia Bar, as a joke, appointed a special committee to try to find me a permanent location. They said I changed jobs so often, they couldn’t keep up with me. (Laughter) I went to Savannah and joined one of the great law firms down there — I probably should have stayed, but I didn’t — and then I skipped over to Rome, Georgia with the same connection to the Central Georgia Railroad that I had established in Savannah.
Then Atlanta came calling. Mr. Spalding recruited me, and I turned him down. He sent a committee at first, but because I wasn’t certain what the situation was, I wanted to talk to the head man. So, Mr. Spalding called me personally (this was old Mr. Spalding) and asked me why I had turned them down — he felt insulted. I said, "Well, I don’t understand your business plan. I don’t see how you make enough money to pay the rent on the space you have, to start out with. And I’d like to see the books." And he was astounded that this young lawyer wanted to see the books! But he said, "How many years would you want to see?" I said, "I’d like to go back to the beginning of the Great Depression — 1929."
And I looked at the books and I became convinced very rapidly that that’s where I ought to be. The books looked very good: all during the Depression, they were making more money than you could imagine. So I agreed to go there, but not until they made me a proposition. I had made my mind up in advance that I wanted the same level of partnership as the [principal partners’] sons. And that’s what they offered me — it was second from the top, and that was an offer you couldn’t refuse. So I came to Atlanta. I never regretted it, and every time I’ve changed jobs since then I always felt like I had a place to go back to. That gives you a lot of confidence when changing jobs, when you know you have friends at a law firm and that you can go back.
So I did that, and I’ve been in King & Spalding now for the third time — I’m the only person that’s ever been there three times. It sounds like I was having a hard time finding a job. (Laughter) But I really wasn’t — I was getting too many offers!
And that was one reason I left the bench. I thought maybe it was time to go when I had gotten very bored with the job. The reason I got bored was the switch from the ten years of the civil rights revolution over into what I call "the prison years." That was when the Supreme Court handed down the decisions that led to all the applications for habeas corpus. And it became my main business to handle prison cases. You can get tired of that after a very short time, because of the fact that most everyone has an appointed lawyer (a free lawyer), you know that in advance, and the federal courts are really going over what the state courts have already done. And so it gets to be almost a pandemonium of prison cases.
When I decided to leave the bench, the Court got very upset about it and wanted me to go to see the Chief Justice in Washington before I made my mind up. So I went up there to see Chief Justice Berger, and he started giving me a lecture on the pay — he said, "I’m doing the best I can to get you a pay raise." I said, "Well, I never expected to get a pay raise. I’m not looking for a pay raise — I knew what the job paid when I took it. So that is not my problem." And he said, "Well, what is your problem?" And I told him about the habeas corpus deluge, and he said "Well, I’m sorry to hear that … I hope you won’t tell any of the other judges why you’re leaving." (Laughter)
At any rate, I left and came back to the law firm. Stayed about a year, and then went to Washington to be the Attorney General. I enjoyed that more than any job I’ve ever had. Of course, you could get something done every day if you wanted to get something done. You had a good staff, smart people, and every advantage that anyone could have to do good work for the country. So I enjoyed that job.
And then I came back to the law firm again, and was able to make a contribution there.
So, I’ve had a great life — great opportunities to serve. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I’m well-satisfied that the Lord has given me a square deal. I’ve lived now to be 90 years old, and I revere all the years I’ve been associated with Mercer. And also, all the years of public service I’ve had. And, all the years of law practice that I’ve had. I don’t think there is any greater calling than being a lawyer and being willing to serve. There are lots of lawyers, but we don’t have too many who are willing to take these public jobs. I’ve been able to do both, and for that I am very thankful.
I’m thankful for all the friends in this room. I appreciate this honor. I never thought I’d have a bust, but I’m grateful for it. Whoever thought it up did a great day’s work. Thank you very much.
Everyone in attendance joined in a standing ovation.