In the spring of 1972, the plaintiffs in Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education petitioned the federal court to find the Board of Education in contempt for not complying with the desegregation orders of Federal District Judge Alexander Lawrence.
The contempt motion was assigned to United States Court of Appeals Judge Griffin B. Bell.
At that hearing I first saw Augusta lawyers in action, and also witnessed an example of Judge Bell's genius in resolving thorny legal disputes. I was there as the judge's law clerk.
At the hearing in Atlanta that day, the plaintiffs were represented by Jack Ruffin and Jack Greenberg of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Representing the school board were attorneys Franklin Pierce and newly minted lawyer Pete Fletcher. Another Augusta lawyer figuring prominently in the dispute that day was John Fleming, who served as president of the school board.
AFTER COURT was called to order by the marshal, Judge Bell directed that the court reporter not take any notes, and he came down from the bench to sit at the clerk's table close to the lawyers and to the members of the Board of Education, who were directed to sit nearby in the jury box. At that point Judge Bell told those assembled that he wanted to talk with them off the record about the duties that each of them had sworn to perform: to uphold and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.
He stressed to them that upholding the Constitution was part of the oath taken by the school board members just as it was part of the oath that he took as a federal appeals judge. Upholding the Constitution, he said, was not doing only what one might wish the Constitution required or how one might personally understand it. Instead, it meant upholding the Constitution as construed and ordered by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Judge Bell said that was his duty as a federal judge and the duty of each school board member. While the school board members might disagree, even vehemently, with what had been ordered by the federal courts, and while they might even contemplate resisting the court orders to the point of being held in contempt, that, he said, was not what a law-abiding and patriotic American should do.
THEN JUDGE BELL said that to ensure that the federal court's orders were followed, there were two choices: first, the school board could decide that it would fulfill that duty itself. If it did not, he was not going to order a fine or incarceration of board members, but instead he would appoint a receiver to displace the school board members and the receiver would operate the county's school system.
He told the board that if they had any doubt that he had the power and the inclination to do so, they had only to look up the road at Taliaferro County where he had ordered the school system placed under the receivership of an out-of-state "Yankee" college professor.
Judge Bell then suggested he would withdraw from the courtroom and that the lawyers for both sides along with the school board should talk among themselves for a while and let him know how they wished to proceed. Thereupon the judge and all other court personnel left.
About an hour later the marshal knocked at the judge's chambers and said the parties in the courtroom were ready to report back to him.
Everyone went back to the courtroom, where court was called to order. At that point the lawyers for both sides reported that after considering all that had occurred, the Richmond County Board of Education would commit to comply with the desegregation orders that had been entered. Hearing that a resolution had been reached, Judge Bell dismissed the contempt motion as moot.
THIS RESOLUTION of the Richmond County contempt motion is indicative of Judge Bell's philosophy about the hundreds of school cases that came before him. He believed the communities that moved the quickest to integrate their schools and did so with the maximum amount of cooperation rather than litigation would be the communities to which racial harmony and improved education of students would more quickly be restored.
During his public service, Judge Bell was a soldier, adviser to governors and presidents, a federal appeals judge for 15 years, and U.S. attorney general during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
When Judge Bell was nominated to serve as attorney general, many who did not know him criticized his appointment and claimed that he had been too soft on integration issues. They were mistaken. On the most critical issue of the era -- whether to obey the dictates of Brown v. Board of Education to integrate -- Bell helped Gov. Vandiver develop a strategy that worked. Bell engineered the formation of a blue-ribbon panel of advisors headed by Chairman John Sibley that led to wide public agreement to comply with the court orders and keep Georgia's public schools open.
Many had advocated going the defiant way of Alabama and Mississippi. Spurred by Bell and Vandiver's leadership, Georgians chose a different course that has stood the test of time and history.
They were also mistaken about Judge Bell's role in literally hundreds of critical civil rights cases in which he was involved during his over 14 years on the court. Judge Bell was, in fact, a practical and forceful appellate judge in the dismantling of discrimination in the six Southern states that comprised the Fifth Circuit. Yet 21 senators, including five Democrats of the president's own party, voted against his confirmation.
TO THE COUNTRY'S benefit, those 21 turned out to be wrong. The office of attorney general and the Department of Justice had been marred during the Nixon administration; Judge Bell led the department to re-establish its reputation as the champion of the rule of law, and it became known again for absolute integrity and transparency.
One senator after another who had voted against his confirmation later apologized for their votes. When Judge Bell stepped down as attorney general, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger said: "No finer man has ever occupied the great office of attorney general of the United States or discharged its high duties with greater distinction."
THROUGHOUT the remainder of Judge Bell's life, he remained in the thick of service to his country, his state and his community. He chaired the American delegation to the "Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe" which met in Madrid and Brussels. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as vice chair of the Federal Ethics Law Reform Commission. On a pro-bono basis he represented a former CIA agent captured and held in Nicaragua.
He served as chairman of the Board of Deacons at his church in Atlanta. He was president of the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. He was the initial chairman of the Atlanta Commission on Crime. At the age of 86 he was commissioned as a major general in the United States Army to serve as a judge on the appeal panels for the military commissions to try enemy combatants. He served as trustee chairman, chair of the Capital Campaign Committee and as a trustee for over 30 years for his beloved Mercer University.
A special gift that Judge Bell gave was counsel, encouragement and mentoring to young lawyers and aspiring lawyers. Some were at his law firm, some worked for him on the court, others worked for him in the Justice Department, and others simply knocked at his door. They all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
I know, for I am one of those.
JUDGE BELL was an avid reader and historian. Throughout his final illness he was surrounded by books, articles and correspondence. Public officials and business leaders continued to seek his advice. After receiving his final diagnosis, he collaborated on the publication this fall of a book of his historical essays entitled Footnotes to History . In one of those, Judge Bell wrote about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and related these words that Holmes spoke at the death of a friend in 1899, words we do well to remember now:
At the grave of a hero who has done these things we end not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.
Judge Bell spent his life fighting for justice and the rule of law, for civility and the highest standards of ethics. Our nation and state are much better for it.
And as Secretary of War Stanton said of Abraham Lincoln: "Now he belongs to the ages."
(The writer is an Augusta lawyer.)