Griffin Bell

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Griffin Bell
Bell in 1985
72nd United States Attorney General
In office
January 26, 1977 – August 16, 1979
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byEdward H. Levi
Succeeded byBenjamin R. Civiletti
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
In office
October 5, 1961 – March 1, 1976
Appointed byJohn F. Kennedy
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byJames Clinkscales Hill
Personal details
Griffin Boyette Bell

(1918-10-31)October 31, 1918
Americus, Georgia, U.S.
DiedJanuary 5, 2009(2009-01-05) (aged 90)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
EducationMercer University (LLB)

Griffin Boyette Bell (October 31, 1918 – January 5, 2009) was the 72nd Attorney General of the United States, having served under President Jimmy Carter. Previously, he was a U.S. circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Education and career[edit]

Born on October 31, 1918, in Americus, Georgia. He served in the United States Army from 1942 to 1946 in the Quartermaster Corps and Transportation Corps. He was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia. He attained the rank of major. After leaving the army, Bell received a Bachelor of Laws in 1948 from Mercer University School of Law. He entered private practice in Savannah, Georgia from 1948 to 1952. He was in private practice in Rome, Georgia from 1952 to 1953 and then was in private practice at King & Spalding in Atlanta, Georgia from 1953 to 1961. He was chief of staff to Governor Ernest Vandiver from 1959 to 1961.

Federal judicial service[edit]

Bell received a recess appointment from President John F. Kennedy on October 5, 1961, to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to a new seat authorized by 75 Stat. 80. He was nominated to the same position by President Kennedy on January 15, 1962. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 5, 1962, and received his commission on February 9, 1962. He served as a board member of the Federal Judicial Center from 1973 to 1976. His service terminated on March 1, 1976, due to his resignation.

Role in the 1966 Georgia gubernatorial election[edit]

In the aftermath of the disputed 1966 Georgia gubernatorial election between Democrat Lester Maddox and Republican Howard "Bo" Callaway, Bell joined Republican Judge Elbert Tuttle in striking down the Georgia constitutional provision requiring that the legislature chose the governor if no general election candidate receives a majority of the vote. The judges concluded that a malapportioned legislature might "dilute" the votes of the candidate with a plurality, in this case Callaway. Bell compared legislative selection to the former County Unit System, a kind of electoral college formerly used in Georgia to select the governor but invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bell and Tuttle granted a temporary suspension of their ruling to permit appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and stipulated that the state could resolve the deadlock so long as the legislature not make the selection. In a five-to-two decision known as Fortson v. Morris, the high court struck down the Bell-Tuttle legal reasoning and directed the legislature to choose between Maddox and Callaway. Two liberal justices, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas had argued against legislative selection of the governor, but the court majority, led this time by Hugo Black, took the strict constructionist line and cleared the path for Maddox's ultimate election.[1]

Attorney General service[edit]

Griffin Bell is sworn in as Attorney General.

Bell briefly returned to private practice in Atlanta in 1976. President Jimmy Carter appointed Bell Attorney General of the United States in 1977, serving until 1979.

Indictment of L. Patrick Gray[edit]

On April 10, 1978, Attorney General Bell announced the indictment of former acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, Mark Felt and former FBI Assistant Director Edward Miller for authorizing break-ins of New York City radical political activists. Bell introduced requirements that any authorized illegal activities must be made in writing. Five Department of Justices attorneys resigned over the alleged reluctance of Attorney General Bell to pursue others in the department for illegal activities related to domestic spying.[2]

Later career[edit]

Bell being sworn in on the Court of Military Commission Review. Bell is the second individual from the left.

Bell returned to private practice in Atlanta from 1979 until his death in 2009. In September 2004, Bell was appointed the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Military Commission Review.[3] Bell was replaced by Judge Frank J. Williams in July 2007, when the first two cases were appealed to the Court, due to ill health.


Griffin Bell died on January 5, 2009, in Atlanta. According to the Associated Press, Bell was being treated for complications from pancreatic cancer and had been suffering from long-term kidney disease.[4] Governor Sonny Perdue ordered the flag of the United States flown at half-staff in the state of Georgia on January 7, 2009, the day of Bell's funeral.[5] He is buried in Americus' Oak Grove Cemetery, Section N3-South, where his tombstone bears the inscription "Citizen Soldier, Trial Lawyer, Federal Appellate Judge, Attorney General of the United States."


Bell had a long-standing relationship with the Georgia Historical Society (GHS). He was a member of the institution for over half a century and from 1996 until his death served as honorary chairman of its advisory board. In 2008, Bell donated his papers to GHS, where they are available for research. See the finding aid for the Griffin B. Bell papers Archived 2023-02-02 at the Wayback Machine at the Georgia Historical Society.

Honors and awards[edit]

In December 2008, Bell received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Georgia Southwestern State University in recognition of his achievements and appreciation for his efforts to promote the interests of his alma mater.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Billy Hathorn, "The Frustration of Opportunity: Georgia Republicans and the Election of 1966", Atlanta History: A Journal of Georgia and the South, XXI (Winter 1987-1988), pp. 46-47
  2. ^ Theoharis, Athan G. (1978) Spying on Americans. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 128-9 p 238. ISBN 0877221413.
  3. ^ "Military Commission Review Panel Takes Oath of Office". United States Department of Defense. 2004-09-22. Archived from the original on 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2008-11-02. Judge Griffin Bell, Carter administration attorney general and former circuit judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Bell to the vice chairmanship of the Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform. Bell is currently a partner at the law firm of King & Spaulding. He graduated cum laude from Mercer University Law School in 1948.
  4. ^ Lyons, Patrick J. (January 6, 2009). "Griffin Bell, Ex-Attorney General, Dies at 90". New York Times.
  5. ^ "Governor Perdue Orders Flags Lowered for Griffin Bell". Governor Sonny Perdue – Office of the Governor (Press release). January 6, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-07-14. Retrieved January 6, 2009.
  6. ^ "Alumnus and former U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to receive honorary doctorate December 13". Georgia Southwestern State University. December 5, 2008. Archived from the original on July 12, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2009.


  • Bell, Griffin B. and Ronald J. Ostrow.Taking Care of the Law Morrow. 1982. ISBN 978-0-688-01136-9
  • Murphy, Reg, "Uncommon Sense, The Achievement of Griffin Bell," Peachtree Press.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Seat established by 75 Stat. 80
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Attorney General
Served under: Jimmy Carter

Succeeded by