- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin, a popular, joke-telling Alabama politician who served as state chief justice before becoming an arbiter of senatorial behavior during three terms in Washington, has died, family and associates said yesterday.

He was 83. The cause of death was not clear.

State Sen. Bobby Denton of Muscle Shoals announced Mr. Heflin’s death in Montgomery on the floor of the Senate, which held a moment of silence.

At Mr. Heflin’s home in Tuscumbia, longtime friend Joseph Ware said Mr. Heflin, who had undergone heart procedures in recent years, had been in Helen Keller Hospital for the past few days, but he was not sure of the cause of death.

Mr. Heflin, a Democrat who spearheaded judicial reform in Alabama as chief justice, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 and retired after 18 years, serving on the Judiciary and Iran-Contra panels as well as becoming chairman of the the ethics committee.

On the judiciary panel, he was remembered for joining in the votes that rejected the nominations of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and Alabama federal prosecutor Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship.

The tables eventually turned, with Mr. Sessions winning Mr. Heflin’s seat as a Republican upon the Democrat’s retirement.

“All through life I’ve found out that we don’t necessarily like all decisions that are made,” Mr. Heflin told the Associated Press shortly before his retirement in January 1997. He said the decision to oppose the Bork nomination in 1987 was his most difficult confirmation vote.

Mr. Sessions issued a statement last night calling Mr. Heflin “one of Alabama’s most noteworthy leaders,” who had been a highly decorated Marine in World War II.

“While I was disappointed that Senator Heflin did not support my judicial confirmation, we’ve had a cordial relationship through the years,” Mr. Sessions said. “As you get older, you see that things have a way of working out.”

Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley said Mr. Heflin identified with all types of Alabama people, and they identified with him because of his humor.

“He was such an ‘aw shucks,’ down-to-earth, colorful person,” she said.

Jess Brown, political science professor at Athens State University, agreed, saying Mr. Heflin “had the personality to go one-on-one with voters, with farmers in rural areas. He knew how to interact with a voter and give that voter a moment in the sunshine, let them know somebody in power cared about them.”

Mr. Heflin served on the Judiciary Committee during the confirmation fight over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, when Anita Hill accused Judge Thomas of sexual harassment.

Mr. Heflin’s deep Alabama drawl was lampooned in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, in which Mr. Heflin was portrayed by Chris Farley, who said later he based his portrayal partly on the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn.

In Alabama, he was remembered as “the father of the total revision of Alabama’s courts … a national leader in the state courts,” former Chief Justice C.C. “Bo” Torbert said.

“He took his judicial experience and became a respected leader in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said.

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