Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat who spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate, winning respect and recognition for his service on the Judiciary and Ethics committees, died yesterday at a hospital near his home in Tuscumbia. He was 83.
Howell Thomas Heflin Jr. said his father was taken to the Helen Keller Memorial Hospital in Sheffield with an intestinal problem, and while there he suffered a massive heart attack.
Howell Heflin was considered his chamber's top authority on ethics.
Sen. Heflin's heart problems had been cited as contributing to his decision not to seek reelection in 1996.
Viewed as a progressive in a region that had been marked by bitter racial conflict, Sen. Heflin, according to his son, was proud of his work in improving race relations and of "improving the conditions of all Alabamans and Americans."
The son said it was "extremely important to him to rid our country of prejudice and bias."
A physically imposing World War II Marine, Sen. Heflin probably was best known to the public as a member of the Judiciary Committee, whose hearings on nominees to the Supreme Court often were nationally televised.
During national debate over controversial nominees, Sen. Heflin, with his rich Alabama accent, often was called on to appear on the Sunday morning television talk shows.
He often was referred to as "the Judge." This seemed to be in deference to both his service as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and to the small-town shrewdness and stalwart sense of judicial prudence that he conveyed.
He was quoted as saying in 1987: "I just try to be the country judge. I don't try to reach an early opinion on something. A judge is supposed to listen to the last argument before he makes up his mind."
Sometimes, it was said, Sen. Heflin's fondness for hearing everybody out led him to the brink of indecision. But dramatic moments occurred when he had made up his mind.
One, cited in the reference book "Politics in America," came during a racially charged debate over giving a congressional design patent to an emblem that included the original Confederate flag.
Breaking ranks with other southern senators, Sen. Heflin joined in the debate by saying that approval should not be given.
"We live today in a different world," he said. According to the reference work, his speech was pivotal, and the endorsement was denied.
In the high-profile Judiciary hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork, Sen. Heflin said he would vote no because of what he called Bork's "proclivity for extremism." He also opposed the successful nomination of Clarence Thomas, although his questioning of Thomas was regarded as helpful to the nominee.
Heflin also received media attention as a member of the committee appointed to look into the Iran-contra matter during the Reagan administration.
His appointment early in his career to the Ethics Committee was regarded as a sign of colleagues' respect for him and his background, and he led investigations that ultimately took issue with the behavior of at least six of his fellow senators.
After announcing in 1995 that he would not run again, he told the Birmingham News that his Ethics Committee service "can be described with many adjectives, none of which include 'enjoyable.' "
In the Senate, he was known as one of the more conservative members of his party. But he voted in solidarity with the national party on numerous issues, and his departure from the chamber was considered a boost to Republican control.
He was regarded as a supporter of many New Deal programs and their descendants, which had long aided his state and in particular helped farmers in rural parts of the north Alabama region where he lived.
Sen. Heflin was born June 19, 1921, in Poulan, Ga., the son of a Methodist preacher. An uncle, who was known as a segregationist, had served in the Senate earlier.
The senator graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1942. After seeing combat in the Pacific and being awarded the Silver Star, he graduated from the University of Alabama's law school.
He won renown in the Tuscumbia area as a trial lawyer, and in 1970, voters, recognizing his opposition to the segregationist positions of former governor George C. Wallace, elected him to head the state's Supreme Court, where he helped modernize the state's judicial system.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife and two grandchildren.