ATLANTA — Griffin Boyette Bell, who served as Jimmy Carter's attorney general and whose South Georgia drawl and lawyerly mannerisms disguised an unusually innovative legal mind, died Monday morning. He was 90.
"He was thinking outside the box before there was a box," said Bob Steed, senior partner at King and Spalding, which Mr. Bell molded over six decades into a politically connected law firm with a national client list.
Mr. Bell died at about 9:45 a.m. at Piedmont Hospital, according to family members. Mr. Bell had been suffering from kidney disease, pancreatic cancer and pneumonia. His son, Griffin Bell Jr., said the family was in the midst of making final arrangements, with a funeral to be held in Americus, Ga., and a memorial service in Atlanta.
"Rosalynn and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend Griffin Bell," former President Carter said in a statement released through the Carter Center.
Mr. Bell's belief in the law as "a practical instrument" marked a career as a federal judge, U.S. attorney general and corporate lawyer extraordinaire.
His specialty lay in conducting internal, page-turning investigations for big companies in trouble: E.F. Hutton, after its financial scandal; Exxon, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska; Dow Corning, after silicone breast implants were linked to health risks. Pro bono, he obtained the release from Nicaragua of Eugene Hasenfus, a mercenary captured after his Contra supply plane was shot down.
"That's the fun of being a lawyer, to take something that's really complicated and decide what to do with it, how to resolve it," Mr. Bell said in a 2006 interview.
Mr. Bell's political involvement spanned a wide arc, from his stint as an unpaid adviser to Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver in 1959, to his role as friend and sometimes lawyer to both Presidents Bush. Working with Vandiver in 1960, he came up with the idea for the Sibley Commission, which is credited with defusing racial tensions and enabling Georgia to peacefully desegregate its public schools.
"Atlanta would not be Atlanta had it not been for Griffin Bell," said Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor.
Mr. Bell's integration work continued during his almost 15 years on the federal bench. He supervised the creation of dozens of school desegregation plans, fashioned with local school officials who often had to be cajoled into doing their duty.
Later, as Jimmy Carter's attorney general in the post-Watergate days, he helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Justice Department and push through a law increasing judicial oversight of government wiretapping.