Alabama’s Howell Heflin Dies at 83
Howell Heflin, a gigantic figure in Alabama politics for decades, has died at the age of 83.
Former Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama, a conservative Democrat who supported civil rights legislation and was sometimes described as the conscience of the Senate, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Sheffield, Ala., near his home in Tuscumbia. He was 83. His death was announced by his family.
Mr. Heflin, a large, bearlike man, was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court before he was elected in 1978 to the Senate, where he served for 18 years. Fellow senators often called him Judge Heflin, referring to his probity and his judicious approach to issues. For 13 years, he passed judgment on his colleagues as a senior member or chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. Mr. Heflin voted against the nominations of Clarence Thomas and Robert H. Bork to the United States Supreme Court. He said Mr. Thomas’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee suggested “contradictions, lack of scholarship, lack of conviction and instability.”
In his farewell address on the Senate floor in September 1996, Mr. Heflin noted that he came from “an ancestral background deeply rooted in the old Confederacy.” He was a nephew of Senator James T. Heflin, known as Cotton Tom, a vehement segregationist. But Howell Heflin said he was “exceedingly proud” of his own civil rights record. “It has been publicly stated by black leaders that I was the first senator from my state who believed in and supported the civil rights movement,” Mr. Heflin said in his farewell speech. “I worked to secure the extension of the Voting Rights Act; to appoint African-Americans and women to the federal bench and other federal offices; to support historically black colleges; to ensure passage of the civil rights restoration bill; to help pass the fair housing bill; and to establish a national holiday honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr.” On civil rights, as on many other issues, Mr. Heflin advocated “compassionate moderation.” “No one of us can remake government or society in our own image,” he said, and politicians should make it “a taboo to demonize your political opponents.”
The Birmingham News account also emphasizes Heflin’s record on race relations.
Mr. Heflin’s life and career spanned periods of much change in Alabama politics. Though from a famous family with a segregationist past, he won the chief justice seat as the anti-George Wallace candidate, and he voted in 1993 to deny the United Daughters of the Confederacy a special patent for the Confederate flag design.
He also recommended the first two black federal judges in Alabama – U.W. Clemon of Birmingham and Myron Thompson of Montgomery – to then-President Carter. There has been none since. Although Mr. Heflin’s public career began in the segregationist era of Gov. Wallace, attorney J.L. Chestnut Jr. of Selma said he never linked Mr. Heflin with Wallace’s politics. “He understood better than most that that era was ending and in a way, it was a noose around the neck of all of Alabama,” said Chestnut, who is black.
Mr. Heflin’s first major mark as a public servant was as chief justice, when he successfully pushed a constitutional amendment that streamlined Alabama’s court system and alleviated a backlog of cases. During his Senate tenure, Heflin’s record reflected a lawmaker more comfortable with protecting Alabama interests than in seeking power or pushing a particular issue or cause. But his ponderous approach to reaching decisions sometimes came across as indecisiveness, particularly when judicial nominees were under consideration.
As one of the swing votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Heflin frustrated both sides during the contentious 1987 confirmation of President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Robert Bork. The panel rejected Bork’s nomination, and Mr. Heflin voted against him. But the Alabama Democrat waited until the day of the vote to announce his position, prompting some to say he had given up the chance to take a leading role in the debate as a Southern conservative. In 1986, Mr. Heflin voted against Republican Jeff Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench after witnesses alleged Sessions made racially insensitive remarks as U.S. attorney in Mobile. Sessions later replaced Mr. Heflin in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee. He said Tuesday that he and his predecessor had “a cordial relationship through the years.” Mr. Heflin also was in the spotlight during the stormy Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Some said Mr. Heflin was ineffective in his questioning of Thomas, and he and other committee members were satirized on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Heflin was likely a better judge than a senator. His reforms of the Alabama judiciary were, for a time at least, emulated nationally. As a Senator, at least in his later years, I often found him to be something of an embarrassment. When the former Chief Justice had his chance to question Robert Bork, the learned jurist began with, “My granddaughter wanted me to ask you why you grew that there beard.”
Still, as both accounts above emphasize, Heflin was an eminently decent fellow and well liked. His ability to get along with those who disagreed with him, too, is a quality sorely lacking in Washington today. He’ll be missed.