Heflin served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He fought in the Pacific Theater, was wounded twice, and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for bravery. He ended his service with the rank of Major and then enrolled at the University of Alabama School of Law, graduating with the “great class” of 1948, a majority of whom were military veterans.
From 1948 to 1971, Heflin practiced law in Tuscumbia. During those years he served as the founding President of the Alabama Law School Alumni Association (1949). He was honored by his fellow attorneys with the presidencies of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association (1963-1965) and the Alabama State Bar (1965-1966). He also served as chairman of the Alabama Ethics Commission (1969-1971). In 1969 he helped found and served as first chairman of the Farrah Law Society at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Throughout his years of practice, Heflin was known as a “country lawyer” who specialized in a general trial practice of both criminal and civil cases. He was even referred to by some as the “Perry Mason” of North Alabama.
When Heflin became President of the Bar, his goal was to reform the state bar association, but in doing that a mandate arose for reform of the entire Alabama judicial system. Within a few months he had appointed over 25 new committees to undertake the work of examining the many issues facing the Bar and the legal system of Alabama. Heflin is well known for his leadership in the passage of the Judicial Article that revised Alabama’s 1901 constitutional provisions regarding the courts. It may not be as well known that many other reforms came about due to the efforts he started with the committees in 1965.
During his presidency, the process began to create Alabama’s Judicial Commission, to eliminate the Justice of the Peace system, to adopt new rules of Civil, Criminal, and Appellate Procedure and a new Code of Ethics for lawyers, to revise lawyer grievance procedures, to recodify the Code of Alabama, and to create a retirement system for judges. The committees also started the work that created the CLE programs at Alabama’s law schools, expanded Legal Aid and indigent defense programs in Alabama, and established the Client Security Fund. They also led to a reorientation of the editorial policy of the Alabama Lawyer magazine under a Board of Editors and the creation of the Alabama Law Institute.
Heflin became Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 1971. When he assumed office, the court system was decentralized and inefficient, still tied to the requirements of the 1901 Constitution and the procedural habits of 19th Century lawyers. He was the first sitting Chief Justice to mount a successful campaign for structural and procedural reform. Everyone knew it was needed. He organized the process through his wide network of allies and got the job done. The shining triumph of his effort was the 1973 constitutional amendment that re-wrote the 1901 Judicial Article.
In 1978 Heflin was elected to the United States Senate. He served four years as chairman of the Select Committee on Ethics. He was also a long-standing and influential member of the Judiciary Committee, was a proponent of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, promoted federal assistance to education, and was a supporter of NASA and Alabama-based space industries.
Heflin retired from the Senate in 1997. He returned to the practice of law and in the spring of 1998 served as Distinguished Senator-in-Residence at the University of Alabama Law School. He died on March 29, 2005. Because of his many services to the people of Alabama, no one deserves recognition in the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame more than Howell T. Heflin.