I was saddened by NPR’s story of the passing of former United States Attorney General Griffin Bell who died this past week of cancer. After serving as a federal district court judge for 15 years, Griffin left the bench and shortly thereafter was appointed by President Carter as United States Attorney General. Griffin was a remarkable figure and civil rights advocate. He worked tirelessly on desegregation of public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. His endeavors were met with great opposition by the states and public schools who tenaciously resisted the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. Griffin never backed down.
Perhaps Bell will be remember best however for taking over a deeply tainted Justice Department in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Remember that Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell was the first (and perhaps not the last) AG convicted and imprisoned for his role in the break-in of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Griffin’s task was to restore public confidence in the Justice Department during a time of immense public distrust of the agency. And how did Griffin do this? He made the agency transparent by publishing his daily logs and calendars allowing the media and public to know what he and the agency were doing on a daily basis. Griffin also involved career professionals in the daily decision making of the agency so as minimize the appearance of political ties to the White House.
What a stark contrast to the Bush Justice Department which has been politicized to an extreme. Indeed, the Bush–Gonzales Justice Department has operated itself in a ‘cloak and dagger’ fashion by dreaming up novel and unfounded legal arguments to support “state secrets” and other vague “privileges” to protect and shield the agencies misdeeds. What we don’t know (and can’t discover) can’t hurt us, right?
If only there were another Griffin Bell, I’m certain we need him now just as we needed him before.