From David Bell’s office on the sixth floor of the Arlington County Justice Center, one can see the Potomac River, the Washington Monument and on a clear day, the U.S. Capitol. It is from this perch that David Bell, the Arlington Clerk of Court for the past 31 years, looks out on the city he has served for the better part of three decades.
But now his time as a public servant is coming to an end. Last month, Bell announced that he would not seek re-election to a fifth term as Clerk of Court, which means that he will retire next year as Arlington’s longest-serving elected official.
Thirty six years to the day that he began working for Arlington County, Bell spoke about his tenure as the Clerk, a position which he calls "the best job in the world."
DAVID BELL WAS BORN in Sharon, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania which, as Bell puts it himself, is "one of those places where we used to make steel." The summer after his junior year at Penn State University, he interned on Capitol Hill for former U.S. Rep. Joseph Vigorito (D-Penn). During his internship, he met his wife-to-be, Arlington-native Katherine Reid.
After their marriage, Bell settled down in Arlington and looked for work and while taking some graduate classes at American University. He pondered law school but decided against it when he realized that he "didn’t have any money." After a short stint selling Christmas trees at Sears, Bell heard through his father-in-law of an opening at the Clerk of Court’s office and decided to pursue it.
Bruce Green, the Clerk of Court at the time, interviewed Bell for the position and asked him if he would be comfortable lifting large boxes of files. He responded by telling Green that "Two summers ago I worked in a steel mill [in Pennsylvania]. Does that answer your question?" Bell was hired him on the spot.
Five years later, when Clerk of Court Joseph Gwaltney was appointed to be a District Court Judge, Bell was appointed to be his replacement. At the age of 28, he was the youngest Clerk in all of Virginia. "When I went to my first [statewide] clerks meeting," he said "I was 28 and the next youngest person in the room was 55."
Bell didn’t have much time to acclimate himself to the position because he had to run for re-election the very next year.
Despite having two opponents, Bell won the election by carrying every precinct which, although common now, was unprecedented at the time. "We ran a very vigorous campaign," he recalls. "We sent mail to every single voter which is kind of crazy for a constitutional office." Since then he has not been contested in any of his three re-election campaigns.
DURING HIS TIME as Arlington Clerk of Court, Bell has achieved statewide notoriety for his longevity as well as his competence. He served as the president of the Virginia Court Clerks and has received the prestigious William L. Winston Justice System Award from the Arlington Bar Association.
Along with being the Clerk of Court, Bell has also been active in the Arlington County Democratic Party, having served as president of the Arlington Young Democrats in the ’70s and as vice-chair of the Arlington Democratic Committee.
"David is highly regarded not just for his excellent work as [Clerk of Court] over the years but also as a community leader," said Paul Ferguson, chairman of the Arlington County Board. Ferguson, who announced that he will seek to succeed Bell as the Clerk of Court, received lots of advice from Bell during his first campaign for County Board in 1995.
"He was a very powerful political force in the party," Ferguson said. "[Bell] was an early supporter of me and has always given me solid advice."
Bill Dolan, the former president of the Virginia Bar Association and also a close friend of Bell’s, served as campaign chairman in his first Clerk of Court election in 1977. He said that Bell’s influence stretches far beyond the county line.
"The other clerks in the state ask him to sort things out," Dolan said. "The appellate courts ask him to serve on committees. The legislature looks to him to guide them [on court matters.] His experience and judgment are highly regarded throughout the state."
John Youngs, the Arlington County Public Defender who has worked closely with Bell over the years, said that he is irreplaceable and observed that Bell is "one of the few people in the legal community that you never hear anything bad about. He is universally respected."
For Bell, being Clerk of Court is simply a labor of love. "What I really enjoy more than anything else about this job is the court administration," he said. "You get to do different things every day."
But he is also aware that now is a good time for him to walk away. "Thirty seven years is a long time to be doing anything," Bell said. Because the term for Clerks of Court is eight years, the longest for any elected office, he would be serving until 2016 if he were re-elected. "I could not see myself doing this until the age of 68," he said. "If it weren’t an eight year term [however], I might have thought about sticking it out."
THERE HAVE BEEN monumental changes in the Clerk’s office since Bell started there more than 30 years ago. "When I came to work here in 1971," Bell said "there were four electric typewriters in the office. Everything else was manual. We [only] had one Xerox machine."
This made the process of handling deeds much more complicated. Bell remembers that, back then, when someone would ask for a copy of their deed, "the clerk would walk back to the room and pull out one of the old deed books. [We] would type the deed word for word [and] you had to make sure every single word was correct."
Shortly after Bell’s arrival in the Clerk’s office, the deeds were converted to microfilm. Now, all the deeds in Arlington County are electronically scanned and put on the Internet for paid subscribers.
Bell acknowledges that some people are not comfortable with anyone being able to pay a fee and see the personal information on the deed to their property. However, he says that this information "has been available since the [days of the] founding fathers if you were willing to go into the courthouse. But [back then], no one would pay attention to this. [So] I don’t think that our making it available online is the problem."
While he does look back fondly on the whole of his career, Bell occasionally frets for the future of his profession. "One of the things I regret," he said, "is the way the legal community has exploded. That has not necessarily been good all of the time."
He feels that attorneys have abdicated their roles as officers of the court to focus on advocating for their respective clients. "Lawyers are all supposed to be officers of the court along with representing their clients," he said. "In the old days it was 75 percent officer of the court, 25 percent advocacy. It’s the other way around now."
Bell knows that it can be a difficult line for lawyers to walk, but he recalls that things weren’t always as they are now. "I remember times when lawyers in criminal cases would jerk their clients off the stand and take them out in the hall and scream at them because they knew [their clients] were lying," Bell said. "You don’t see that anymore. That’s something I regret."
BELL HAS NO DEFINITE PLANS for the future as of yet, but he does have a few ideas of what he wants to be doing with his newfound free time. "In 2008," he said, "I’m going to do what I want to do."
He has a passion for shallow water fishing, which he loves because, as he puts it, "I’m a fisherman but I’m not a sailor; I get sea sick." He also plans on spending time at his house in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and visiting his family back in Pennsylvania.
When Bell leaves office at the end of this year, he will be able to look out the window of his office one final time and survey the city of Arlington, the city he devoted his career to. Then, after a final glance, an era will come to a dignified end at the Arlington County Courthouse.