Howell T. Heflin pursued his illustrious career in public service with uncommon integrity.
In a time of war, on the bench and representing his state in Washington, Heflin sought to discern what was wrong and fight for what was right.
During his time in the United States Senate, colleagues and observers often described him as the conscience of the upper chamber. That designation very well summarized his approach to public service at every point along the way.
The son of a Methodist minister, Heflin graduated from Colbert County High School in Leighton and then from Birmingham-Southern College with degree in history and political science in 1942.
Called to war, Heflin served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 to 1946. He received the Silver Star and two Purple Heart medals during his service.
He returned home to Alabama and graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1948. He then built a successful law practice in Tuscumbia and began his journey of service to the state’s judicial system. In 1963, Heflin was elected to serve as president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, and he served as president of the Alabama State Bar Association from 1965 to 1966.
He was elected to serve as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 1970, a position in which he served for six years.
Heflin left an indelible mark on Alabama’s justice system during his time on the court.
During his term, he led a successful effort to adopt the Judicial Article of 1973 which modernized Alabama’s judicial system. These much-needed reforms created the Unified Judicial System and put into place requirements that judges be licensed attorneys and the legislature fund the judicial system. The initiative also included the adoption of standards of judicial professionalism.
In 1976, the American Association of Trial Lawyers named Heflin the nation’s Most Outstanding Appellate Judge.
Voters in Alabama elected Heflin to the United States Senate in 1978, a body where he served for 18 years.
A zealous advocate for the people of his state, Heflin fought tirelessly in Washington for the agriculture and aerospace industries.
Addressed as “Judge” by his fellow senators, Heflin’s spirit for reforming the justice system endured on Capitol Hill just as it had all those years as a member of the bench and the bar.
He sought reform of the federal criminal justice system, citing what he considered unnecessary delays in bringing John Hinckley to trial for his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Heflin said at the time, “The slow, cumbersome and too-often ineffective American criminal justice system must be overhauled so it can more efficiently and effectively deal with the rising epidemic of violent crime in this nation.”
He was a proponent of the Legal Services Corporation and sponsored legislation to create the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, State Justice Institute, Civil Justice Reform Act, National Commission on Judicial Discipline, Justice Assistance Act and Permanent Federal Court Study of 1988 and Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994.
In recognition of his reform efforts, Heflin received the John Marshall Award from the American Bar Association Justice Center for the extraordinary improvement in the administration of justice.
In his farewell speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1996, he talked about how he was “exceedingly proud” of his record on civil rights issues. He poignantly remarked, “No one of us can remake government or society in our own image.”
In 2001, Alabama-based NewSouth Books published an insightful authorized biography of Heflin. Written by John Hayman and his wife Clara Ruth Hayman, A Judge in the Senate: Howell Heflin’s Career of Politics and Principle focused on Heflin’s position as one of the last Roosevelt-style Southern Democrats and his impeccable character. Writer Dave Bryan remarked of the book, “Hayman argues convincingly that Heflin was a progressive politician in a state perhaps best known for its violent opposition to the civil rights movement and its segregationist past under former Governor George Wallace.”
Following his time in the U.S. Senate, Heflin lived in Tuscumbia and continued to work for the people of his state until his passing in 2005.