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Griffin Bell’s Contributions to Federal Criminal Justice

I saw Griffin Bell’s name every morning for almost three decades when I entered my office in the Detroit U. S. Attorney’s Office. His signature was on the DOJ certificate which hung behind my desk. His death this week, at age 90, brings to mind subjects like civility and the gradual approach to solving problems and making improvements, subjects which get scant attention in most prosecutors’ offices.

Griffin Bell told the 1977 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination as Attorney General that he had integrated more schools than any other judge. He accomplished this on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals during a very difficult era of American civil rights by gradually implementing pragmatic plans which moved the South to a new educational system. His detractors said that this approach defied Brown v. Board of Education’s order to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” But few of them lived with the tens of thousands of angry Southerners who feared that equality of opportunity for African American children would doom a way of life for the majority. Griffin Bell’s civil and courtly gradualism made it possible for men like Barack Obama and Eric Holder to hold leadership positions thirty years later.

In the Justice Department, Bell brought this same incremental approach to a department desperately in need of both image rehabilitation and modernization. It has always been a challenge for the Attorney General to set a course which reconciles its dual, and often bipolar, responsibilities, political and nonpolitical. Advising the President, vetting judicial nominees, proposing legislation-all of these functions and more require the Department to be immersed in the political circus. But increasingly in the last half of the 20th Century, more was expected of the country’s legal department. People expected fair adjudicative procedures and policies and guaranteed independent enforcement of its laws free of personal, partisan, or popular bias. Ironically, it was the reaction to the Watergate incident, Saturday Night Massacre and criminality of John Mitchell which defined how important this principle of de-politicization had become.

Justice Department historians, if there are any, will record the 1970s as an important time in this progression, as well as its modernization to meet the needs of a more complex system of law enforcement. The mission of federal prosecutors and agents was beginning to include proactive cases and methods to go along with their traditional reactive staples such as buy-bust drug cases, bank robberies and customs seizures. These new cases would require better technology, specialized prosecutors and investigators, and more nuanced criminal laws. Griffin Bell’s policies to promote these objectives would gain him no headlines and are hardly discernible looking back 30 years later. But they laid the groundwork for the complex work of the 21st Century Justice Department.

The other principle that Griffin Bell stands for is the emphasis on civility and ethical obligations. He reminded us in the U. S. Attorney’s Office of these subjects when he visited Detroit in 1978. America has always been schizoid about expectations for its prosecutors. On the one hand, we must be hard-nosed, tough zealots advocating the longest sentence and the draconian result. But we are also expected to be fair, even merciful, and most of all, advocate a just resolution, even if contrary to “winning” a case. Griffin Bell could have penned the instruction commonly given by trial judges to juries in federal criminal trials at the close of the evidence, an instruction which admittedly causes Assistant U. S. Attorneys to wince occasionally: The jury need not be concerned with whether the government wins or loses the case because the government always wins when justice is done.

Justice Cardozo in a previous century explained that justice is a concept which is never finished but is always reproducing itself, incrementally, generation after generation in ever changing forms. Griffin Bell grasped this concept like few others in his generation and, in doing so, made an important contribution to the development of the rule of law in this country.

By Ross Parker


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