Remembering Judge Griffin B. Bell

Distinguished Alumnus and Former U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell Dies at 90

Griffin Boyette Bell, one of Mercer University’s most distinguished graduates and the 72nd Attorney General of the United States, died in Atlanta. He was 90. A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Oak Grove Cemetery in Americus. Judge Bell’s memorial service will be held at Atlanta’s Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church on Friday at 11 a.m.

A trusted counselor to U.S. presidents, members of Congress and governors of both parties, and to major corporations and jurists across the country, Judge Bell earned his law degree, cum laude, from Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law in 1948. Appointed U.S. Attorney General by fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1977, Judge Bell is credited by many with restoring integrity and transparency to the U.S. Department of Justice following the Watergate scandal.

Throughout his distinguished career as an attorney, federal judge and attorney general, Judge Bell steadfastly supported his alma mater, offering strong leadership as a trustee and helping raise more than half a billion dollars in gifts to Mercer. He served six terms on the University’s Board of Trustees, dating back to 1967, and was chair of the board from 1991 to 1995.

In 1999, the Association of Governing Boards awarded its Distinguished Service Award in Trusteeship to Judge Bell in recognition of his significant contributions to Mercer and to higher education in general. From the $10,000 the University was awarded in Judge Bell’s honor, the Board of Trustees voted to initiate the Griffin B. Bell Award for Community Service. The award recognizes a graduating student who has exemplified the true meaning of community service during their studies, improving the lives of others through their dedication and commitment. The Bell Award is the only University honor presented to students across all 11 of Mercer’s schools and colleges.

Judge Bell was elected a Life Trustee in 2007 – only the sixth person at that time to be named to the office in Mercer’s 175-year history. In 1983, he was named Mercer’s first Distinguished University Professor and was a frequent lecturer and panelist at Mercer’s law school over the years. Friends and colleagues raised $1 million in 1986 to establish the Griffin Boyette Bell Chair of Law at Mercer.

“Griffin Bell committed his life to service — service to his country, service to the cause of justice, service to his clients, and service to his alma mater, Mercer University. “Over the past four decades, no one has been more committed to Mercer than Judge Bell, and no one has done more to advance the University,” said Mercer President William D. Underwood. “I will miss his friendship. I will miss his sense of humor. I will miss his wise counsel. He was truly a great man.”

Chancellor R. Kirby Godsey, who preceded Underwood as Mercer’s president and worked closely with Judge Bell for 27 years, said his presidency was guided and enriched by the former board chairman’s extraordinary leadership and by their “profound friendship.”

“For countless hours over the years, I sat with him, seeking his sage advice, learning from his wisdom, treasuring his friendship. His thinking was always clear and precise, his voice  articulate, his will resolute. Judge Bell combined a high sense of integrity with a strong measure of grace,” Dr. Godsey said. “With his awe-inspiring wisdom and a rare quotient of insight, he made complex issues transparent, and he characteristically brought light and clarity amidst shadows of confusion. Griffin Bell was more than an outstanding statesman or a great American; he stood as a first citizen of the world whose voice and insights will shape human history for decades to come.”

As a trustee, Judge Bell made the motion to establish the Mercer School of Medicine, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary of preparing primary care physicians for rural and underserved areas of Georgia. In the late 1980s, he helped steer the University through financial difficulties, and over the years staunchly defended the institution when Georgia Baptists – with whom the University was affiliated for 173 years – sought to infringe upon Mercer’s academic freedom. 

As the chair of two Mercer capital campaigns, Judge Bell brought prominence and visibility, engaged major donors, and helped recruit volunteers for fund-raising efforts, in addition to sharing generously from his own financial resources. The recently completed “Advancing the Vision Campaign” – which Judge Bell chaired – raised $350 million in gifts and pledges. 

At the December 2008 Board of Trustees meeting, where a bust of Judge Bell was unveiled, he reflected on his life and his long association with Mercer.

“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,” Judge Bell said. “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.”

A longtime senior partner at the influential, Atlanta-based King & Spalding law firm, Judge Bell on several occasions stepped away from private practice to serve his state and country. 

In 1959, Judge Bell was appointed chief of staff by Gov. Ernest Vandiver and is credited with creating the General Assembly Commission on Schools, which recommended to the governor and the Georgia General Assembly that the public school system be preserved at all costs rather than close in the face of court-ordered desegregation. 

In 1960, he was named co-chairman of John F. Kennedy’s Georgia campaign for the presidency, and in 1961 President Kennedy appointed Judge Bell to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. While sitting as a Fifth Circuit judge, he provided steady and principled judicial leadership during the height of the American civil rights movement. After 15 years on the bench, he returned to King & Spalding in 1976. He resigned from the firm to become the 72nd Attorney General of the United States on Jan. 26, 1977. He served as attorney general until Aug. 16, 1979, when he returned to King & Spalding, serving as chair of its Policy Committee.

President Carter in 1980 asked Judge Bell to serve as head of the American delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Madrid. In 1981, he served as co-chairman of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Violent Crime. In 1982, William Morrow and Company published Judge Bell’s political memoir, Taking Care of the Law. In 2008, Mercer University Press published a compilation of Judge Bell’s speeches, titled Footnotes to History: A Primer on the American Political Character, edited by John P. Cole.

His other public and professional service included serving as president of the American College of Trial Lawyers in 1985-86; serving on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa from 1985-87; and serving on the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for the Commemoration of the United States Constitution from 1986-89.

In 1988, Judge Bell became a director of the National Science Center Foundation and was a director of the American Enterprise Institute. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Judge Bell to serve as vice chairman of the President’s Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform. 

Other honors include receiving the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Award for Excellence in Law in 1984; the Georgia Freedom Award from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in 1995; and the John Marshall Medal from the John Marshall Foundation in 2008. He served on numerous corporate boards, including Martin Marietta Corp., The Hardaway Co. and Total Systems Services Inc.

Judge Bell is survived by his wife, Nancy; his son, Griffin B. Bell Jr.; daughter-in-law, Glenda Bell; and grandchildren, Griffin B. Bell III and Katherine P. Bell. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary.