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U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell had Gainesville ties

Americus native died Monday

POSTED: January 6, 2009 12:05 a.m.

Griffin Bell, the Americus native who attained legendary status among his peers in the legal profession, was remembered Monday as a kind, courtly man with a brilliant mind.

Bell, who grew up in Southwest Georgia with Jimmy Carter and would later become attorney general during Carter’s presidency, died Monday. He was 90.

He was being treated at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital for complications due to pancreatic cancer and kidney disease, which he had fought for years.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge William C. O’Kelley of Gainesville was appointed to the federal bench while Bell was serving on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I sat with him on many three-judge cases," O’Kelley said. "He was a very fine individual, and it was a pleasure to be with him. He was very conscientious and was a devoted American, both as a judge and as attorney general."

O’Kelley said Bell had a brilliant mind for the law.

"This is a loss to the country and the profession," he said.

Carter said he was "deeply saddened" by Bell’s death and called him a "trusted and enduring public figure."

"As a World War II veteran, federal appeals court judge, civil rights advocate and U.S. attorney general in my administration, Griffin made many lasting contributions to his native Georgia and country," he said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Carter’s choice of his longtime friend as attorney general was considered the most controversial of his Cabinet appointments after the 1976 election.

The NAACP and other civil rights groups complained that Bell, as a federal judge, didn’t force Southern schools to integrate quickly enough. And they cited Bell’s tenure as chief of staff for Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who campaigned in 1958 on a segregation platform.

But Carter called Bell’s civil rights record superb, and many black Georgians — including U.N. ambassador designate Andrew Young — came forward to support him.

"Frankly, I prefer a Southerner who has been struggling with the problem of civil rights actively for several years over a Northern intellectual liberal," Young said at the time.

Don Carter, a Gainesville civic leader who is not related to the former president but was one of his early campaign confidantes, met Bell during the Carter campaign for the White House.

"We rubbed elbows a few times," said Don Carter. "He, along with Charlie Kirbo, was among the top supporters of Jimmy Carter."

Other Gainesville connections to Bell included prominent attorney Edgar B. Dunlap II, who served as his law clerk in 1974 and 1975. Bell was chronicled in a 2001 book, "Uncommon Sense: The Achievement of Griffin Bell," written by Gainesville native Reg Murphy, the former editor of The Atlanta Constitution and chairman of the National Geographic Society.

Bell served just 2« years at the Justice Department, leaving in mid-1979 — at his own request — to return to his Atlanta law firm, King & Spalding. But he called his tenure as attorney general "the best job I ever had," and he remained close to the action in government by maintaining a law office in Washington. He also remained a key adviser to Carter.

Bell was born Oct. 31, 1918, in the south Georgia town of Americus, 10 miles from Carter’s hometown of Plains. Their families were well acquainted even though he was six years older than Carter.

A Democrat, Bell was respected by members of both parties. A year ago, he endorsed Republican John McCain’s bid for president. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush hired Bell to be his private lawyer in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Gainesville attorney Wyc Orr recalled visiting Bell’s Atlanta office in the 1980s to discuss a matter for the State Bar of Georgia.

"He was such a gracious host and was so welcoming," Orr said. "Despite his storied history as a judge and attorney general, he was so down to earth and without pretense."

Bell’s latest book "Footnotes to History: A Primer on the American Political Character," recently was published by Mercer University Press. It is a collection of speeches he gave during his long career. Originally scheduled for release this spring, the publisher pushed up the release date after Bell’s health declined.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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