The Wit and Wisdom of Judge Griffin B. Bell

Article excerpt

When called to furnish a profile on my late friend, trial lawyer, circuit judge, and Attorney General of the United States, Judge Griffin B. Bell, for publication in the Journal of Southern Legal History, I was intrigued. When urged to write something on the wit and humor of the Judge's nature, I was excited.

Over the almost fifty-year span that has passed since the time Judge Bell offered me a job at King & Spalding, I have been entertained, amused, and captivated by the Judge's keen sense of humor. I have also been the victim of it. When I attempted to foist off on an unsuspecting public a collection of my newspaper columns between hard covers,1 the Judge contributed a blurb for my efforts that read: "There is a raging dispute as to whether Steed is a lawyer or a writer. The lawyers say he is a writer and the writers say he is a lawyer. One certain fact is that Steed has written far more than he has read." On another cover he said, "Don't buy this book. It will only encourage him. Steed's ego is already such that he has group photos taken of himself."

On the subject of ego, someone introducing Judge Bell said, "It's very refreshing to see how much faidi Judge Bell has in himself, particularly in these times when so many people believe in no god at all."

Judge Bell's own considerable sense of self or ego was formidable. He was traveling with a reporter who kept quizzing him on his ambitious agenda for die Department of Justice. "How can you accomplish such an ambitious agenda?" the reporter asked. "It will take an enormous amount of time." Judge Bell snapped back, "I work fast." The reporter persisted, "Don't you worry that you will make mistakes working fast?" To which the Judge replied, "I don't recommend working fast for a dumb person."

At a press conference early in his service as attorney general, Judge Bell was questioned very severely by a reporter who wanted to know why all the judicial nominees seemed to be Democrats. The Judge replied, "We are not running an affirmative action program for Republican lawyers."

At the end of his government service he was interviewed by Barbara Walters, who asked how he would rank himself on a scale of one to ten. He answered that he would say eleven, and then went on to explain to the nonplussed reporter that an eleven was a ten with no false modesty.

A good example of his often self-deprecating humor was the story of a Carter White House reunion several years ago when a guest approached him and proceeded to praise him for all he had done during the Carter Administration. Judge Bell was very pleased and dianked the person who then added, "I hope with all my heart that you will again be reappointed, Chairman Greenspan."

One of the Judge's abiding principles was that, "No client or potential client should ever have to shoot birds or play golf alone."

His favorite golf event each year was the annual springtime Judicial Invitational Golf Classic, which brings together a rag-tag group of lawyers and judges to play two day-long matches. Since its founding more than diirty-eight years ago, Judge Bell never missed a Judicial Invitational tournament or lost his interest in golf.

Once, the Judge was playing golf with colleagues Hale Barrett, David Hudson, and me. I was die Judge's partner and he was not enjoying my poor play as I tacked from one side of die course to the otfier, staying mostly in die heavy rough. When we got to the halfway house, the Judge turned to me and said, "Next time we are partners why don't you get us some of those cell phones? I might like to ask you a question or two."

In his seventy-eighth year, the Judge made a hole-in-one on number seven at Sea Island's Ocean Forest Golf Club. His caddy was absolutely stunned and, after making a great commotion, asked innocently, "Judge, are you the oldest man who ever made a hole in one?" Relating this story to others was the type of selfdeprecating humor die Judge liked to tell and re-tell. …