Clerk of Court Finds Invitations Keep Coming


(Sunday, April 15, 2007 8:15 PM EDT)

The past three months have been something of a victory lap for David Bell.

After serving 30 years as clerk of the Circuit of the Circuit Court in a happy degree of self-chosen obscurity, Bell's announcement that he would not seek re-election has led to a number of accolades and opportunities to speak.

The Arlington County Civic Federation honored him at its annual gala. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce asked him to be keynote speaker at its 25th annual Valor Awards ceremony. And a number of community groups have sought him out to enliven their meetings with comments and anecdotes from his years in office.

And, having spent nearly four decades in and around the county courthouse, Bell has plenty of anecdotes to draw from.

At the Valor Awards ceremony, he noted the time when his son, then about 10 years old, was in a bit of a competition with other neighborhood youngsters over whose dad had the most important job.

Being clerk of the court wasn't exactly at the top of the list, Bell noted, until his son mentioned that, by law, “every police officer has to stand in front of my father and swear.” As in swear the oath of office.

Bell has been responsible for the swearing-in of a host of elected officials, public-safety recruits, court personnel and others during his tenure. And he has witnessed exceptional change in his office over the years.

At a recent Kiwanis Club of Arlington meeting, Bell offered his own “Top 10” list of changes: some good, some bad, some just different.

In no particular order, Bell's Top 10 went as follows:

* Typewriters - When Bell first started in the clerk's office in the early 1970s, he remembered that everyone had a manual typewriter. The three electric typewriters in the office represented cutting-edge technology. Now, there are only five typewriters in the courthouse, the rest replaced by computer technology.

* Support for victims - Victims of crimes are no longer treated as just the key witnesses in a case. Now, there are programs like the police department's Victim/Witness Program, which provides services to help victims gain stability in their lives, participate fully in the criminal justice system and receive all appropriate information.

* Sentencing - Bell shared that Virginia is only one of two states where the defendant is sentenced by the jury. Traditionally, juries did not have any more information on the defendant besides what they heard in court; starting about 10 years ago, juries were given the parameters of punishment and more information on the defendants to help them make a better sentencing decision.

“It's a huge improvement in the system,” Bell said.

* Record-keeping - Years ago, it was easier to find a deed in a bound deed book and retype it than to try and use technology to find it. Now, not only is the text from deeds available electronically and easily accessible, but images of the deeds themselves also are at people's fingertips.

* Accessibility - In 1971, the county's old courthouse (since imploded) was not accessible to those with disabilities. Today, “we have one of the most accessible courtrooms in the U.S.,” Bell said.

* Diversity - When Bell started in the clerk's office, there was “no non-white person there.” But now, more than half of the staff in the courthouse is a member of a minority group.

* Advocacy - On a more negative note, Bell lamented that, today, some attorneys spend too much energy as advocates and do not see as much importance in their role as an officer of the court.

* No lunch - In the 1970s, all the judges of the court used to go out to lunch with each other. That is not the situation anymore, and Bell hopes that today's judges will start the trend again to help build camaraderie.

* Incarceration - Jails used to be bars and cells, where the incarcerated would just sit all day or watch TV. Jails today are much tighter ships, with work and rehabilitation and education programs for the inmates.

* Courthouse Plaza - When Bell started, none of the buildings around the courthouse were taller than three stories. Now the courthouse itself is 12 stories and is one of the centerpieces of Arlington's “urban-village” design that focuses development around Metro stations.


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