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A memorial service was held yesterday in Atlanta for former federal judge and attorney general Griffin Bell. He died this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 90. Along with his immediate predecessor, Edward Levi, Mr. Bell is widely credited with restoring the U.S. Justice Department's reputation for independence and excellence in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
This past summer, not long after Griffin Bell learned he was dying, he agreed to an interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
NINA TOTENBERG: Not many public figures would cheerfully agree to an interview when they know their days on Earth are numbered, but Griffin Bell didn't hesitate when I asked him. Sure, he said. You want to do it now? No, I replied, you've had a treatment today. You're probably tired. Yeah, he said, with typical humour. I won't die between now and next week.
Bell began his career in public service when he was appointed a federal appeals court judge in 1961. In his 15 years on the bench, he would rule on more than 140 school desegregation cases and other controversies of the civil rights revolution. Shortly after returning to private practice, he was appointed attorney general by President Carter. When we talked, I asked this son of the Old South when he first began thinking about segregation. When he returned from World War II, he replied, he had a part-time job examining land titles and had to ride through rural areas in Georgia.
Mr. GRIFFIN BELL (Former Attorney General; Former Federal Judge): And for the first time, I saw a black school right in the rural area. And I had somebody with me. I said, you know, this won't - this won't last. This can't last. It's not fair to the blacks to have such a poor school, poor building, and the whites have good buildings, and it must reflect in the teaching.
TOTENBERG: By the late 1960s and early '70s, he was presiding over dozens and dozens of school desegregation cases as a federal judge. Along the way, he recalls...
Mr. BELL: I hit on an idea of explaining to the school board that the supremacy clause of the Constitution was binding on them just like it was on me and that therefore there was no escape for them. They had to carry out the court's order.
TOTENBERG: The supremacy clause establishes the Constitution, federal laws and treaties as the supreme law of the land. Bell recalls one time when the chief judge of the then-Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals assigned him to preside over a school case in Augusta, Georgia after the district court judge there had been hung in effigy and recused himself.
Mr. BELL: So I said, I'm a circuit judge, not a district judge. And he said, well, people don't get as mad with you as they did with some of the other judges. And I said, all right, I'll do it. So I sent for the school board and brought them to (unintelligible) and read the supremacy clause to them. I said, you all have got to carry out the court order.
TOTENBERG: If you don't, Bell told them, he would do what he'd done elsewhere - appoint somebody else in the school board's place to do the job.
Mr. BELL: I gave them 15 minutes to make their mind up, and they agreed. That's the kind of approach you had to take for those cases. I think I was in more school cases than anybody, about 140 different cases. That was a big job, a big challenge, but it was also something you got a great deal of satisfaction out of.
TOTENBERG: But with the end of the civil rights revolution, the appeals court docket changed to more prosaic issues, or, as Bell puts it, drug running and things like that.
Mr. BELL: And I thought, am I going to do this for the rest of my life? That's when I was started thinking about leaving the court.
TOTENBERG: Bell soon went back to practicing law, but within a year was Jimmy Carter's attorney general. At the Justice Department, he was avocal advocate for getting more blacks and women on the bench. Why, I asked him, did he think that affirmative action and judicial appointments was so important?
Mr. BELL: So people would trust the law. I mean, you can't help 20 percent of the population who aren't represented on a court.
TOTENBERG: Or, for that matter, in the case of women, over 50 percent. Bell's appointment as attorney general initially drew opposition from the right and left. There was great suspicion that this longtime Georgia friend of the president's would be a political fixer. That turned out to be dead wrong, though Bell readily concedes that he had to fight off some of the White House staff to preserve the department's independence.
Mr. BELL: The presient called and told me that he wanted the Justice Department to be a neutral zone in the government, which I agreed with. Well, it can't be neutral if the White House is telling you how to run it, who to prosecute and whatnot. And I had just fight all the White House staff. I always won. If it had to go with president, I'd win every time, but it was just a nuisance to have to do that.
TOTENBERG: At the Justice Department, Bell was beloved by the career staff. He included top career people in all major decision-making, respecting them as the best example of excellence in government. In an effort to restore trust in the department, he made public every day the previous day's calendar - who he met with and who he spoke to on the phone. And when he overruled a recommendation of the career staff, he always offered them the option of making that public too.
Mr. BELL: Trust is at the corner of the realm(ph). If the public doesn't trust the Justice Department, we're in trouble. So I think you have to be transparent, and so you need to let people know what's going on and who you're meeting with and who's influencing you, who got a chance to influence you. And I took great pride in that. I was quite surprised nobody else has ever done it.
TOTENBERG: More than surprised, he was puzzled.
Mr. BELL: I don't think it hurt me at all for posting those daily schedules. In fact, they helped me in a lot of ways because it cut down on the number of calls you got from Congressmen.
TOTENBERG: At the time of this interview in August, Bell knew that at best he had only a few months to live. He had already planned the inscription on his tombstone.
Mr. BELL: Citizen soldier, trial lawyer, federal jurist, and attorney general of the United States. That's the four things that I considered to be the most important in my life.
TOTENBERG: He said he wanted most to be remembered for what he did in the school cases with a focus on neighborhood schools wherever he could do that.
Mr. BELL: I resisted the busing because it was a fool idea. I'm proud of working on all those school cases and getting the schools renovated and going through what I call the civil rights revolution.
TOTENBERG: As for himself?
Mr. BELL: I'm at peace. I had a long life until I was 89. I never was seriously ill, and most everything I've ever done turned out to be a success. I just don't have any complaints.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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