Heflin, Major Player on Nominations, Dies at 83
Former Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), a fixture in the chamber for three terms, died on March 29 at the age of 83.
Although the cause of death was not immediately released, Heflin had suffered from heart problems in the past, and had spent several days in the hospital prior to his death.
Heflin was perhaps best known for the role he played on both the Senate Judiciary and Ethics committees.
He presided over the “Keating Five” Savings and Loan hearings and sat on the Judiciary Committee during its tumultuous confirmation hearings for Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and now-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Though Sessions was defeated in his bid for a seat on the federal bench, he went on to fill the seat vacated by Heflin when he retired in 1996.
In a statement, Sessions said he felt no ill will towards Heflin, maintaining that the two “had a cordial relationship through the years.”
Heflin, who served as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court before his election to the Senate in 1978, was also known for his progressive stance on civil rights issues.
Though he was a nephew of Sen. James Thomas Heflin, a prominent segregationist, the younger Heflin did not share his uncle’s views on racial issues.
While in the Senate, Heflin worked to extend the Voting Rights Act and appoint minorities to the judiciary.
Before attending law school, Heflin served in World War II as a Marine in the Pacific from 1942 to 1946. While in the military he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star for bravery.
As a result of his military service, Heflin was a proponent of a strong national defense during his time in the Senate.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who is black, recalled receiving his start in the Senator’s office.
“My first job in Washington was as an intern to Sen. Heflin,” Davis said in a statement. “What was striking to me was that the judge, as virtually everyone called him, never really flinched. He did the right thing.”
Heflin’s fellow Alabama Senator, Richard Shelby — a Democrat who then switched to the GOP — recalled his devotion to their home state.
“Judge Heflin was one of the most respected figures in Alabama politics,” Shelby said in a statement. “He truly loved his state and served it well for many years. As Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he helped to modernize Alabama’s legal system.”
As a politically aware high school student growing up in Alabama, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R) followed Heflin’s career closely.
“When I was growing up, he was the senior Senator, and being someone who was interested in politics, I kept up with him,” Aderholt said in an interview. “He spoke to our high school, and I remember that quite well.”
Heflin is survived by his wife, son, and two grandsons.