Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Conversations with Judge Griffin B. Bell King & Spalding, LLP August 2003

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Conversations with Judge Griffin B. Bell King & Spalding, LLP August 2003

Article excerpt

with Robert L. Steed, Richard A. Schneider, Wick Sollers, and Chilton Varner

Judge Griffin Bell says his father may have had it in his head that he wanted him to be a lawyer but it's doubtful his father could have imagined what his son would accomplish. Serving as Chief of Staff to the Governor of Georgia, Legal Advisor to diree United States Presidents, Federal Appellate Judge for fourteen years, Attorney General of the United States, and Managing Partner of King & Spalding, to name just a few of Griffin Bell's many achievements.

Born October 31, 1918 in Americus, Georgia, Griffin Boyette Bell graduated from high school at age fifteen, briefly attended Georgia Soudiwestern College, and in 1942 was drafted into die United States Army and became a company commander to more than 500 soldiers in the transportation division. By Bell's own assessment, the Army is where he got the most valuable management experience of his life.

Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Bell was driving to Athens to enroll in die University of Georgia School of Law when he stopped in Macon and talked with die Dean of Mercer University Law School. "Until finding a job with a law firm here, I will enroll at Mercer," Bell told die Dean. A deal was sunck and a life-long love affair between Bell and Mercer University began.

After passing die Georgia Bar, Bell was hired as a city attorney in Warner Robins because, as he tells it, 44I was one of the few veterans who didn't use curse words during the interview." Bell worked for a law firm in Savannah and then another firm in Rome, Georgia when he was personally recruited by Hughes Spalding, Sr. to join the law firm then known as Spalding, Sibley, Troutman & Kelley. Spalding was puzzled as to why Bell would turn down previous offers from numerous firms that had tried to recruit him. Asked what would convince him to join Spalding's law firm, Bell asked to look at die firm's books. When Bell determined diat the firm had done well all through the Depression, Bell changed his mind and agreed to join the other nine attorneys. In 1953, he became a partner at King & Spalding and became managing partner in 1958.

In 1959, Bell was named Chief of Staff to Governor Ernest Vandiver. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to serve as a United States Circuit Judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a judge during this socially volatile time, Bell became known as one of the court's most hardened enforcers of civil rights. He was known for applying the law as written. In an unusual move for a federal appellate judge with a lifetime appointment, Bell resigned and returned to King & Spalding in 1975, leaving public service behind him, or so he thought.

Eleven months later, a childhood acquaintance, Jimmy Carter, was elected President of the United States and nominated Bell to be Attorney General. After a political firestorm of Senate hearings, Griffin Bell was confirmed by a vote of 75 to 21 and became an outstanding Attorney General. When he resigned in 1979, Chief Justice Warren Burger said, "No finer man has ever occupied the great office of Attorney General of the United States or discharged his duties with greater distinction."

Judge Bell returned to King & Spalding where he brought several clients to the firm. He became nationally recognized for conducting internal investigations for clients such as Exxon on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Dow Corning on the breast implant controversy. Bell also served as President George H. W. Bush's personal attorney during the Independent Counsel's investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.

Judge Bell has been described as a cross between Mark Twain and John Marshall. He has been admired for being witty, savvy, intelligent, plain spoken, and pragmatic. King 8c Spalding partner, Robert Steed, said, "His is the finest, quickest, best legal mind I've ever experienced. Judge Bell was thinking outside the box before there was a box. …

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