Jerry Summers: Howell Heflin - Justice And Senator

Thursday, June 10, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Politics was a tradition of the Heflin name in Alabama.  Howell Heflin was a nephew of James Thomas Heflin, a well-known white supremacist in the state and also served as a United States Senator.  He was also great nephew of Robert Stell Heflin, who served in the House of Representatives in Congress.  Howell Heflin was born in Poulan Worth County, Georgia on June 19, 1921.  He attended the Alabama public schools and graduated from Birmingham Southern College in 1942.

            In World War II he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942-1946 as an officer and distinguished himself as a soldier at the invasions of Bougainville and Guam winning the Silver Star medal and two Purple Hearts for being wounded.  Upon returning from military service he went to law school at the University of Alabama graduating in 1948.  He established a law practice in Tuscumbia, Alabama and also served as a law professor at Tuscaloosa for 20 years.

            Unlike many politicians, Heflin was an active and accomplished trial lawyer.  In that capacity he was held in high esteem by his fellow attorneys and selected for membership in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, American College of Trial Lawyers, and the International Society of Barristers, based on legal talent and ethics.  He was selected as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 1971 and served until 1977.  During that term of service he is credited with reforming Alabama's antiquated court system by improving efficiency and getting the Judicial Article of 1973 enacted by the Alabama legislature.  This was a major revision of the state's outmoded 1901 constitution.

            When he retired from the court in 1977 the state's court system was considered to be a national model.  In 1978 he was elected to the United States Senate.   He became a powerful committee chairman as well as a strong advocate for Southern agriculture, judicial reform and economic development for the state of Alabama.

            He had succeeded John Sparkman who had been Adlai E. Stevenson’s running mate in the 1952 presidential race.  He was the last popularly elected Democrat from Alabama although his colleague Richard Shelby had been elected as a Democrat but later switched to the Republican Party.

            While in the Senate Heflin in March 1981 was greatly affected by the shooting of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley and the fact that his case was not brought to trial until 14 months had passed from the date of the incident.  He advocated for the need for an overhaul of the criminal system to deal with what he described as a “rising epidemic of violent crime in the nation.”  He further spoke in favor of putting aside petty partisan politics and to unite both parties in an effort to wage a successful war on crime.

            Heflin was a conservative Democrat who strongly opposed gun control and abortion, supported prayer in schools, and opposed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  As a military veteran of WWII he supported the Gulf War of 1991 and opposed cuts in military spending and on occasion voted with the Senate Republicans on tax reform. 

            He and his colleague Senator Fritz Hollins of South Carolina were the only Democrats to vote against the Family and Medical Leave Act.  In 1984 and 1990 he successfully won second and third terms in the Senate but chose not to seek a fourth term in 1996. 

            Although his family's political background was clothed in segregation, he in 1993 made a memorable speech in support of an effort to deny renewal of a Confederate Flag design for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in spite of his love and pride of his Confederate ancestors.

Doubtlessly his most embarrassing moment came in 1994 when he was dining with a group of reporters in the Senate cafeteria. He reached into his pocket for a handkerchief and pulled out a pair of women's panties. There followed this short press release: "I mistakenly picked up a pair of my wife's white panties and put them in my pocket while I was rushing out the door to go to work. Rather than take a chance on being embarrassed again, I'm going to start buying colored handkerchiefs."

            Heflin died of a heart attack on March 29, 2005 in his hometown of Tuscumbia but not before he anonymously made a gift of $1 million to the University of Alabama Law School for scholarships for deserving young people.  Numerous honors and public recognitions were made in his name and the New York Times described Heflin as the “conscience of the Senate.” 

            Senator Heflin is often remembered today as a model of public service to Alabama, as a man who obtained great power and applied that power for the common good.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

Howell Heflin
Howell Heflin

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