State Bar recognizes Judge Bell for nearly five decades of public service

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

“No matter what I’ve taken on in life, I’ve always said that I want to leave it better than I?found it,” says Judge Robert Holmes Bell, who was recently awarded a Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Public Service Award from the State Bar of Michigan.

Whether he is talking about the U.S. Court for the Western District of Michigan, from which he retired last year, any of the courts or offices he has served over the years, or just rehabbing homes he has bought, it is clear that Judge Bell does just that.

“I was just totally honored by it,” he says about the prestigious award. “If you’re doing what you think you do well and you do it consistently, you just really have a great sense of appreciation when others notice that too. I felt like, well, good, I didn’t do all this for nothing.”

Judge Bell seems genuinely surprised by the influence he has had on others, as he said he was by receiving the award since he did not “even know it was a possibility.” But the Grand Rapids Bar Association noted in a full-page advertisement in the awards booklet that Judge Bell “has served the citizens of West Michigan and the United States of America with gravitas and distinction and indelibly raised the standards of civility and collegiality throughout our legal community.”

Talking about the judge’s participation in the Hillman Advocacy Program, attorney Molly McManus said in a support letter for his nomination, “His words and demeanor made quite an impression on me during that first year of my law practice – the awe of being treated with such respect by a federal judge and the weight of the expectations that were placed upon us. Throughout my practice, I have strived to live up to those expectations.”

Respect is the heart of the matter for Judge Bell, and he regards treating everyone respectfully, from staff to attorneys to juries to the parties who came before him, as the key to leaving the court “better than he found it.”

“I always felt that the court can be a team that works effectively, with lawyers, litigants, juries, clerks, and judges in a spirit of public service, so that we achieve the best possible outcome – that people be treated courteously and in an even-handed manner,” he said in the video that the State Bar made for the awards banquet.

That has not always been easy. Judge Bell has presided over some  cases that tested his resolve, and he absolutely believes in being firm at the same time. He tells of an incident in one of his most high-profile trials, that of Marvin Gabrion, which was nationally famous because it was decided to seek the death penalty under federal law (since the crime was committed on federal land). Gabrion, eventually convicted in 2002, was the first person to receive the death penalty in Michigan since 1937.

“Even the worst of the criminals, including my death penalty case, deserve to be treated respectfully as a matter of course. To treat someone like that disrespectfully means you may not be able to give them full justice,” Judge Bell says.

It presented a real challenge to extend that respect to Gabrion, who has mental health issues, “but not enough that you could say he was not accountable,” according to the judge. Gabrion himself treated everyone around him disrespectfully, to the extent that he literally beat up one of his attorneys. Judge Bell treated one infraction by simply stopping the trial and sending the defendant back to his cell, day after day. “By about the third day we had him back in court. It’s a question of who runs the court. I think the judge does,” he says, smiling. 

Robert Holmes Bell spent almost his entire career in the judiciary. After growing up in the small community of Williamston, he graduated from high school in the Okemos School district where his “wonderful” mother was an educator. That helped Bell gain admission to Wheaton College, a high-ranked Christian college in Illinois with stringent academic standards.

Judge Bell met his wife Helen there, and the two have continued happily as life partners, raising three children: his namesake Rob Bell Jr., who is the sometimes-controversial former pastor and author named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2011; daughter Ruth, who lives near her parents and has three children; and son Jonathan, who owns his own brand strategy company in Grand Rapids.

Judge Bell went on to Wayne State University Law School. In his last year, anxious for trial experience, he participated in the legal aid clinic, and, under fire, had a direct experience with representing clients in Wayne County Circuit Court when his supervising attorney was tied up on another case

He became an assistant Ingham County prosecutor in 1969. “The one thing including being a state prosecutor that I thought was so good for me: I always carried the burden of proof on the case.   I always went in knowing that I had to have everything in order, the evidence,  full understanding of the standards I had to meet. I tried lots and lots of cases for three years, and I?just really liked it,” he says.

But in 1972, he saw an opportunity to run for the Ingham County District Court when the incumbent was found to be “messing around,” as Judge Bell puts it. He served the district court six years and then ran for a newly-created judgeship on the circuit court. He notes with pride that he exceeded the regulations for disclosure of campaign contributions so that everyone would know where the funds came from. He held that position for over 14 years.

“As I always do, I worked hard at leaving those courts better than I found them. When I left there was no backlog in civil cases and the criminal cases were clearly boundaried and under control, and there was a good staff,” he says.

Appointed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan, Judge Bell spent the remainder of his career in the Western District court. Throughout that career of service, he saw a lot, from tax evaders to financial advisors who fleeced elderly clients to a couple of young men who killed a fellow drug dealer and then shook the body to get all the drugs and money to fall out.

An extension of the respect Judge Bell gave participants is that he always tried to understand the reason behind a defendant’s actions, often deeply questioning them about their motivations. That understanding helped Judge Bell institute a sentence, including very specific requirements to be met, that would punish defendants for breaking the law but also set them on the path to meaningful change.

In addition, Judge Bell took very seriously his role as Chief Judge of the federal court. “There was a lot of bickering and judges were not getting along,” he says. “I brought all the magistrates and judges together and said, ‘I want to turn a page in our history.’ I just kept encouraging them, and as of the time I took senior status last year, everyone is getting along famously.” He notes that, of course, he did not achieve this alone, and acknowledges the work of current Chief Judge Robert Jonker, who, he says, is “very smart and very kind.”

The guiding factor in Judge Bell’s endeavor to leave things better than he found them is his Christian faith. “For me the focus is on how you conduct yourself day to day. It’s a private matter with me,” he says. “And to do good,  in my view, happens to coincide  with my Christianity.”


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