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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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
* 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.