The Legacy Of Legal Legend Griffin Bell

Former federal judge and attorney general Griffin Bell died this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 90. Along with his immediate predecessor Edward Levi, Bell is widely credited with restoring the Justice Department's reputation for independence and excellence in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

This past summer, not long after Bell learned that he was dying, he agreed to an interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Former Attorney General Griffin Bell Dies

Griffin Bell, the Georgia lawyer who became President Jimmy Carter's attorney general, has died of pancreatic cancer at age 90.

A native of Americus, Ga., and a longtime Carter associate, Bell was appointed to the federal bench by President Kennedy and had served as a district court judge for 15 years when he was named attorney general.

He arrived in 1977 to take over a Justice Department that had been profoundly tainted by the Watergate scandal. He set out to restore faith in the agency.

"Trust is a coin of the realm, and if the public doesn't trust the Justice Department, we're in trouble," Bell told Nina Totenberg in a recent conversation. "You have to be transparent."

As attorney general, Bell published a daily log of whom he met with and spoke to on the telephone and gave it to the media.

Though he faced initial skepticism from those who saw him as a crony of the new president, Bell was "fiercely protective of the career people in the Justice Department [and] brought them into the decision-making process on a routine basis," Totenberg tells Steve Inskeep.

Bell took a hard line on national security, but he emphasized working within the law to achieve security goals, Totenberg says.

He wrote the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allowed wiretapping against foreign governments but only with the permission of a court.

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