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U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, 90; Voice of Moderation as Appeals Court Judge

Although chosen by his friend, President Jimmy Carter, as attorney general, Griffin B. Bell said he maintained his independence in probes involving the president's campaign and his top aides.
Although chosen by his friend, President Jimmy Carter, as attorney general, Griffin B. Bell said he maintained his independence in probes involving the president's campaign and his top aides. (The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Griffin B. Bell, 90, a corporate lawyer and federal appeals court judge who became the first U.S. attorney general of President Jimmy Carter, his longtime friend and fellow Georgian, died Jan. 5 at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

He had complications from pancreatic cancer, said a spokesman for the venerable Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding, where Mr. Bell had worked as a young man and after leaving the Carter administration in 1979.

In his post-government career, Mr. Bell enjoyed a reputation as a courtly troubleshooter for major corporations. He was named to many blue-ribbon government commissions and specialized in conducting internal probes of alleged mismanagement at white-collar firms. He enjoyed quail shooting and golfing with heads of state.

As a fast-rising young lawyer in Atlanta, Mr. Bell was also a prodigious fundraiser for Democrats, and he helped engineer an overwhelming victory in Georgia for presidential nominee John F. Kennedy in 1960 as co-manager of the campaign in the state.

In return, Kennedy appointed Mr. Bell in 1961 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit with jurisdiction over much of the Southeast.

During his 15-year tenure, Mr. Bell saw himself as a figure of moderation, particularly on subjects as explosive as civil rights. He ruled in favor of voting rights for blacks and judicial efforts to place more blacks on juries. He came out against mandatory busing as a means to desegregate schools.

In a widely publicized 1966 case, Mr. Bell agreed that the Georgia legislature was within its rights to refuse a seat to elected representative Julian Bond, then a black activist who had purportedly made statements against the Vietnam War.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the ruling against Bond, now chairman of the NAACP, and was among Mr. Bell's outspoken foes for the attorney general job.

Although his nomination was never seriously in doubt, Mr. Bell's appointment was contentious in part because of his unpaid work in 1959 and 1960 as chief of staff to Georgia Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver, who had been elected after declaring that "no, not one" black child would be sitting in a white classroom in the state.

With Mr. Bell as a pivotal backstage figure, Vandiver persuaded hardcore segregationists in the state legislature to repeal a statute to close schoolhouse doors rather than move forward with desegregation.

Mr. Bell worked with black leaders to foster an atmosphere of compromise and helped start a commission that held public hearings on school integration. The commission recommended that voters in each district have the right to decide their own approach to desegration.

This was a controversial decision, widely seen as an effort to delay federal court rulings that mandated racial integration of public institutions. However, Mr. Bell said the schools remained open in the face of great opposition, and Georgia was spared much of the violence experienced in other Southern states during this period.


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