Honoring A Legal Giant

January 6, 2009

I’m not surprised that the Philadelphia Inquirer chose to magnify the misstep of former Carter Administration Attorney General Griffin Bell to the exclusion of all else in their writeup about Bell’s passing today.

As the Inky tells us, Bell fired Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney David Marston in 1978 at the urging of local Democratic congressman Joshua Eilberg and Wilkes Barre congressman Daniel Flood. Investigations by Marston led to corruption charges against both of them.

However, as the Inquirer tells us…

Despite the controversy, Marston was replaced by Peter Vaira, a career Justice Department lawyer who continued with aggressive investigation of corrupt politicians.

Marston went on to a successful law practice after unsuccessful runs for governor and mayor in 1978 and 1979. He is still a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia.

Firing Marston was a mistake, but at least he was replaced by a professional of comparable caliber.

And I would ask that you keep this in mind when you read something as humorous as this U.S. News and World Report article that attempts to draw a parallel between former Dubya AG Abu Gonzales and his firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to prosecute Democrats for allegations of “voter fraud” while they ran for re-election, and Bell’s firing of Marston.

I want to point out, though, that no discussion of Griffin Bell is complete without acknowledging that, as Wikipedia tells us here, he “led the effort to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978,” which…

…resulted from extensive investigations by Senate Committees into the legality of domestic intelligence activities. These investigations were led separately by Sam Ervin and Frank Church in 1978 as a response to President Richard Nixon’s usage of federal resources to spy on political and activist groups, which violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[4]

Ah yes, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; I vaguely remember it. Maybe I’ll dust off one of my college law books and read about it just to refresh my memory (based on this).


The Carter administration, advised by Bell, greatly increased the number of women and minorities serving on the federal bench. Bell recruited an Eighth Circuit judge, Wade McCree, an African American, to serve as Solicitor General of the United States, and Drew S. Days, III, an African American lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund he had admired in oral arguments before him, to head the Civil Rights Division.

So remember his misstep in the Marston case if you wish, but also recall that Griffin Bell was a prominent figure in our history who respected and honored the rule of law, truly understood our constitutional separation of powers, and sought to represent those for whom justice was deferred, but not denied.

What a pity that, despite his many years, he did not live to see FISA restored to the law he originally supported after its evisceration by a congress of rampantly corporatist Republicans and spineless, equally co-opted Democrats.

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