Howell Heflin, 83; Was Seen as the Senate’s Top Ethics Authority

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Howell Heflin, a popular Alabama politician who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Tuscumbia, Ala. He was 83.

Heflin’s son, Howell T. Heflin Jr., told the Washington Post that his father was taken to a hospital with an intestinal problem, and then had a major heart attack.

Heflin had a history of heart problems, the Post report said, which was a contributing factor in his decision not to seek reelection in 1996.


Heflin, a Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1978 and retired after 18 years. He served on the Judiciary and Ethics committees and the panel that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. He was viewed as the chamber’s top authority on ethics, heading the ethics panel for nearly a decade when Democrats were in the majority.

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

The tables eventually turned, with Sessions, a Republican, winning Heflin’s seat when he retired.

“All through life I’ve found out that we don’t necessarily like all decisions that are made,” Heflin told Associated Press shortly before his retirement in January 1997.

Heflin said the decision to oppose the Bork nomination in 1987 was his most difficult confirmation vote.

Though not as fiery on the campaign trail, Heflin was almost as effective as his contemporary, the late four-time Alabama Gov. George Wallace, said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University in Athens, Ala.

“He had the personality to go one-on-one with voters, with farmers in rural areas,” Brown said.

“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,” Brown added.

Before he was elected to the Senate, Heflin spearheaded judicial reform in Alabama as the state’s chief justice.

Born in Poulan, Ga., Heflin grew up in Tuscumbia, Ala.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at Birmingham Southern College in 1942 and served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star.

After the war, he earned his law degree at the University of Alabama and practiced law in Tuscumbia.

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife and two grandchildren.