Griffin Bell, who was serving as attorney general when the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act became law, died Monday at age 90. He was appointed by Jimmy Carter in January 1977 and stayed until August 1979. As the first attorney general after the Nixon and Ford years, he came to a Justice Department that was damaged and diminished. But Judge Bell was the right man for the job. His integrity — wrapped in beautiful southern manners and simple eloquence — earned respect from both sides of the aisle and throughout the country, and he brought the shine back to the DOJ.
Dan Slater’s post in the Wall Street Journal’s law blog about Griffin Bell’s passing included this wonderful anecdote:
In 2002, Bell gave this commencement speech at his alma mater, Mercer University’s law school. He said:
In 1835, a young Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville came to this country to study our prison system. He stayed for two years and ended up writing Democracy in America, an epic study of our democratic system. He reached many conclusions, and two apply to you.
First, he said that almost every problem that arises in a democracy will eventually be resolved in the court system. This was true then and it is true now.
Second, he said that there was no aristocracy in America, but that the nearest approach to aristocracy was in the lawyer class. His thought was that lawyers occupy an unusual and favored position in our system.
So now that you are about to become aristocrats, I want to give you a short lecture on behavior. We have an ample supply of lawyers in our country, and some of the lawyers overlook the obligation to serve others. They also distort the privilege of practicing law by converting it into a mere occupation. I was taught in law school that a lawyer had ethical obligations well above the morals of the marketplace.