Howell Thomas Heflin (1921-2005) was an attorney and elected official who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama from 1971 to 1977 and as a U.S. senator from Alabama from 1979 to 1997. A lifelong Democrat, Heflin was the cousin of noted Alabama educator and reformer Julia Strudwick Tutwiler and the nephew of J. Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin, an outspoken segregationist and anti-Catholic who represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate in the 1920s and 1930s. Heflin himself was known for employing minority staff members and for his strong civil rights record in the Senate.
Heflin was born June 19, 1921, to Marvin Heflin, a Methodist minister, and Louise Strudwick Heflin, a former teacher, in Poulan, Georgia, just east of Albany. Heflin grew up in rural Georgia and Alabama, his family often relocating to accommodate his father's ministerial postings. He graduated from Colbert County High School in Leighton, and enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College in 1938, majoring in history and political science and graduating in 1942. A first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 to 1946 during World War II, Heflin participated in the Bougainville and Guam invasions and was awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
After the war, Heflin taught political science at the University of Alabama, while also earning a degree from its law school in 1948. While in law school, Heflin met Elizabeth Ann Carmichael, whom he married in 1952. After his graduation, Heflin moved to Tuscumbia and during the next two decades ran a successful law practice. During these years, he was active in statewide legal circles—including a term as Alabama State Bar President from 1965 to 1966—and also in the Tuscumbia community. In 1969, Governor Albert Brewer appointed Heflin to the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Heflin was active in political campaigns but never ran for public office himself until 1970, when he sought the Democratic nomination for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. Heflin won the primary, despite being a first-time candidate and being opposed by former Alabama Attorney General and Governor John Patterson, and easily won the general election. As Chief Justice, Heflin authored notable opinions on the power of the judiciary, workers' rights, criminal procedure, and women's rights. He also won national acclaim for his successful championing of the Judicial Article of 1973, which modernized and streamlined Alabama's fragmented, corrupt, and inefficient judicial system. The Judicial Article created the Unified Judicial System and implemented many other reforms, including requirements that trial and appellate judges be licensed attorneys, that the legislature fund the judicial system, and that stronger standards of judicial professionalism be implemented. Heflin's successful reform effort was the first—and, to date, only—major substantial revision to the Alabama Constitution of 1901.
Heflin decided not to seek reelection as Chief Justice, leaving office in early 1977 to resume his Tuscumbia law practice. In 1978, however, Heflin sought the Democratic nomination for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator John Sparkman. Challenged at first by Governor George C. Wallace, who ultimately dropped out, and Alabama congressman Walter J. Flowers Jr., Heflin won the nomination and eventually the election and was sworn in on January 15, 1979.
Known as "Judge" to his Senate colleagues and once called the conscience of the Senate, Heflin displayed an independent streak and a steadfast commitment to the citizens of Alabama. He was very active on the agriculture issues important to Alabama, worked to secure federal funding for the aerospace industry in Huntsville. Heflin opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, but voted for the 1993 Clinton Economic Plan. Although progressive on civil rights issues, Heflin tended to be more conservative on national defense, the Cold War, and some social issues. It was at Heflin's suggestion that President Jimmy Carter nominated the first (and, as of 2008, the only) African American federal judges in Alabama: U. W. Clemon and Myron Thompson. He was largely in tune with the attitudes of his state, and he was reelected in 1984 and 1990 over Republican opponents Albert Lee Smith and William J. Cabaniss Jr. During the 1990 election, Heflin best displayed the wit that was part of his political persona, famously saying that Cabaniss belonged to the "Grey Poupon crowd."
While in the Senate, Heflin served on the committees on Agriculture, Commerce, and the Judiciary, and chaired the Senate Ethics Committee. He was recognized as a leader on the Judiciary Committee, where he voted against the nomination of his eventual Senate successor, Jeff Sessions, to an Alabama federal judgeship in 1986 and against the nominations of conservatives Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 and 1991, respectively. He proved to be just as strong a supporter of judicial reform at the federal level as he was in Alabama; among other initiatives, he introduced the bill that created the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Although well-liked by his constituents and Senate colleagues, Heflin did at times arouse criticism. Many Alabama newspapers editorialized against his support for civil rights. He sometimes drew criticism from some fellow Democrats for not supporting his party's majority views by opposing abortion, most gun control bills (although he did support the Assault Weapons Ban), the Family and Medical Leave Act, homosexuals in the military, limits on school prayer, and environmental regulation. Even so, Heflin was known for his bipartisan appeal and was considered for high office by presidents of different parties (by President Carter for U.S. Attorney General and by President Ronald Reagan for the U.S. Supreme Court). Senate Republicans tried many times to convince Heflin to switch parties, but he always refused, even after fellow Alabama Democratic Senator Richard C. Shelby switched to the Republican Party in 1994.
On March 30, 1995, citing health concerns, Heflin announced that he would not seek reelection in 1996. When his Senate term concluded on January 3, 1997, he returned to Tuscumbia, where his final years were marked by spending time with family and friends, working with his biographers, lobbying, and giving an occasional political speech. On March 29, 2005, Heflin suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 83. News of his passing was met with valedictory comments from politicians in both parties, inside and outside of Alabama. Heflin was interred at the Oakwood Cemetery in Tuscumbia.
Heflin is remembered as a talented orator with a flair for humor and bipartisanship; for the respect and integrity he inspired
from those of all political persuasions; for his shepherding of the Judicial Article; for his strong commitment to African
American civil rights; and for his 18 years representing Alabama in the U.S. Senate.
Hayman, John, and Clara Ruth Hayman. A Judge in the Senate: Howell Heflin's Career of Politics and Principle. Montgomery: New South Books, 2001.
Noles, James L. Jr. "'A High Calling': The Public Life and Service of Howell T. Heflin." Journal of the Legal Profession 30 (2005-06): 1-30.
Shores, Janie L. "A Tribute to Howell Thomas Heflin and His Achievements as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court." Alabama Law Review 48 (Winter 1997): 417-30.
James T. Gibson
Published March 5, 2008
Last updated December 5, 2014