Heflin, Howell Thomas

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Heflin, Howell Thomas

(b. 19 June 1921 in Poulan, Georgia; d. 29 March 2005 in Sheffield, Alabama), judge and U.S. senator who earned an enduring reputation for legal scholarship and even-handed politics while maintaining the moderate Democratic tradition in the South.

Heflin was born in rural southwestern Georgia to the Reverend Marvin Rutledge Heflin, a Methodist minister, and Louise (Strudwick) Heflin, a homemaker; he had two siblings. On his father’s side, Heflin was the descendant of a long line of Alabama legislators, the most famous among them being his uncle J. Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin, a fierce segregationist who served in the U.S. Senate from 1921 to 1931. After moving with his family to his ancestral Alabama, Heflin graduated from Colbert County High School in 1938. He then attended Birmingham-Southern College, and, after graduating in 1942, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps until 1946, attaining the rank of major. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart after receiving wounds during combat in the Pacific. Returning home, he taught political science at the University of Alabama while studying law there. In 1948 he graduated with a JD and married Elizabeth Ann Carmichael, of Tuscumbia, with whom he would have one son.

By the mid-1950s Heflin had established himself as a prominent legal figure in and around Colbert County, serving as president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association from 1963 to 1965 and of the Alabama State Bar from 1965 to 1966. During this period he became aligned with the faction of the state Democratic Party opposed to Governor George C. Wallace. He also became known as a leading advocate of reforming Alabama’s judicial system, which many held to be woefully antiquated and inefficient. This issue in particular spurred Heflin’s candidacy for chief justice of the state supreme court, an elected position, in 1970. Bucking the Wallace political machine, he defeated the former governor John Patterson in the Democratic primary and won the general election without opposition.

Soon after becoming chief justice, Heflin urged the Alabama legislature to enact a series of judicial reform proposals. Among other specifics, he called for sustained judicial training, mandatory retirement for judges, and the elimination of procedural delays in the submission of appellate court cases. He also advocated revisions of the judicial article of the Alabama Constitution, calling for a unified two-tier trial court system, a judiciary salary commission, state funding for the courts, and a tightening of professional standards. Heflin and several of his fellow justices campaigned vigorously for these proposals, which were approved by a two-to-one ratio when submitted to a statewide vote in December 1973. He then appointed a commission to formulate recommendations for the planning and implementation of the new system, and these recommendations were unanimously adopted by both houses of the Alabama legislature in 1975. Looking back at Heflin’s judicial revision package in 1996, Gita M. Smith of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described them as “the only major reform of Alabama’s Constitution in more than one hundred years.”

In addition to his reform efforts, Heflin established himself as a progressive jurist during his years on the Alabama Supreme Court. He wrote opinions affirming the rights of workers to bring class-action suits against employers who sought to withhold due compensation. In a vigorous dissent in Twyman v. State, he supported the right of due process for illiterate or mentally impaired criminal defendants, which led to eventual changes in state procedures. Heflin’s service on the bench was exceptionally influential, leading him to be selected as Most Outstanding Appellate Judge in the United States by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America in 1975. In late 1976 he turned down an offer by President-elect Jimmy Carter to be nominated for U.S. attorney general.

After completing his term as chief justice in 1977, Heflin entered the Democratic primary for election to the U.S. Senate. After Wallace unexpectedly dropped out of the race, the congressman Walter Flowers became Heflin’s main opponent. Heflin used Flowers’s experience against him, accusing him of being part of “the Washington crowd.” The two were forced into a runoff, which Heflin won with 65 percent of the vote, and he went on to be elected in November, winning 94 percent of the vote, with only minor party opposition.

Heflin’s bearlike size and restrained, country-seasoned manner made him an instantly recognizable senator. He was appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the start of his first term, where he distinguished himself through his technical knowledge of the law, particularly in the areas of bankruptcy and regulatory reform. Fellow senators nicknamed him “the Judge,” in acknowledgment of both his years as chief justice and his even-handed approach to decision making. His reputation served him well as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, where he played a key role in the 1982 investigation and eventual expulsion of the New Jersey Democrat Harrison Williams.

On the whole, Heflin voted with fellow Democrats on economic matters while taking more conservative positions on foreign policy and social issues. He was reelected in 1984 with 63 percent of the vote, defeating the former Republican congressman Albert Lee Smith. During his second term, Heflin gained attention as a participant in a number of high-profile Senate hearings. In 1986 he stirred controversy by opposing President Ronald W. Reagan’s nomination of fellow Alabamian Jeff Sessions as federal district judge. Heflin said that he harbored “reasonable doubts” about Sessions’s fairness, citing the charge that he had made racially insensitive remarks while serving as the U.S. attorney in Mobile. His influence proved decisive in defeating the nomination. (Ironically, Sessions would win Heflin’s Senate seat in 1996.)

In 1987 Heflin was back in the spotlight as a member of the Iran-Contra Committee, which investigated the government’s coincident sale of arms to Iran and support of Nicaraguan rebels. That same year he became an important swing vote when the Judiciary Committee considered the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Keeping observers guessing over his inclinations throughout the hearings, Heflin ultimately voted against Bork because of the nominee’s “proclivity for extremism.” Although his judicial votes angered some of his constituents, Heflin managed to win reelection in 1990. His opponent, the Republican state senator William Cabaniss, charged him with being too liberal on social issues, but Heflin responded by ridiculing Cabaniss as a “Gucci-clothed, Mercedes-driving, Jacuzzi-soaked, Perrier-drinking” elitist and won the election with 61 percent of the vote.

Heflin was again in the spotlight during the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Some thought that Heflin’s hostile questioning of Thomas regarding Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges were ineffectual and helped win sympathy for the Supreme Court nominee. That same year Heflin was also highly visible as Ethics Committee chairman during the investigation of the Charles Keating savings and loan scandal. Heflin led the committee in rebuking five senators for intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Keating. “It’s not a pleasant task to have to judge your colleagues,” Heflin said at the time. Shortly afterwards, he resigned his chairmanship of the committee.

By his third term, Heflin had established a clear voting record in a number of areas. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, he supported subsidies for Alabama cotton and peanut farmers. He worked to expand funding for space industry programs, an important economic interest in the Huntsville area. On a number of issues, including abortion, family and medical leave, and gays in the military, he stood to the right of his party. Perhaps most significantly, he emerged as a spokesman for expanding civil rights protections, voting in favor of the 1990 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1993 he broke with other senators from his region by voting to deny the United Daughters of the Confederacy a special patent for the Confederate flag design. “We live in a different world,” he told his fellow southerners at the time. As the nephew of “Cotton Tom” Heflin, his stands for racial reconciliation carried particular weight.

In 1995 Heflin announced that he would not run for a fourth term. In his farewell address on the Senate floor the following year, he stated that he was “exceedingly proud” of his civil rights record and noted that he was “the first senator from my state who believed in and supported the civil rights movement.” In summing up his career, he advocated “compassionate moderation” and reminded his colleagues that “no one of us can remake government or society in his own image.” He died of a heart attack in a hospital near his Tuscumbia home on 29 March 2005; he was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery located there.

An important transitional figure in his region’s politics, Heflin upheld the moderate stance of southern Democrats from the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Heflin’s years on the Alabama Supreme Court made a lasting impact on the state’s judicial system. As a U.S. senator, he brought a balanced judicial temperament and legal exactitude to heated partisan debates. Heflin’s advocacy of civil rights measures may be his most lasting legacy, as he offered closure to the era embodied by his segregationist uncle.

John Hayman, Judge in the Senate: Howell Heflin’s Career of Politics and Principle (2001), is a substantial and sympathetic biography. Extensive information on Heflin’s tenure as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court can be found in tributes offered by Janie L. Shores, William Mike House, and Paul Simon in Alabama Law Review 48, no. 2 (Winter 1997). An obituary is in the Washington Post (30 Mar. 2005).

Barry Alfonso

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