Mitchell recalls Heflin

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2005

Former U.S. Senator Howard Heflin, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83, didn't 'stand on ceremony' said Sen. Wendell Mitchell.

Mitchell recalled a speech he attended given by Heflin almost a decade ago in Birmingham.

"There was a crowd of people in to hear him and the place was just packed," said Mitchell by telephone on Wednesday. "It was in the middle of his talk and I tried to sneak in through the back and go unnoticed."

But, said Mitchell, from Heflin's position up front the ex-senator could see all.

'Get yourself in here, 'Walkin' Wendell, and get up in the front where you're supposed to be,' Mitchell recalled Heflin announcing throughout the auditorium.

"That was his way," said Mitchell. "He always called me 'Walkin' Wendell whenever I saw him."

Heflin served 18 years with the Senate after his election in 1978. Prior to that he was an attorney and served as Alabama's Chief Justice, a title that stayed with him long after the fact. His contemporaries in the Senate often referred to Heflin as the 'Judge.'

Mitchell first became acquainted with Heflin in the 60s.

"I had the privilege right out of law school of working with Senator Heflin on a case in 1965," said Mitchell. "At that time it was the largest civil verdict in the state. So as an attorney I gained a great deal of respect for him just in the amount of preparation he put into the trial."

As Chief Justice, said Mitchell, Heflin became a 'towering figure in the judicial community.'

"He will be missed," said Mitchell.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Richard Shelby said Heflin was 'one of the most respected figures in Alabama politics.'

"He truly loved his state and served it well for many years," said Shelby. "As Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he helped to modernize Alabama's legal system."

Heflin retired in 1997. He served on the Judiciary and Iran-Contra panels, becoming noted for his dissenting vote against Alabama federal prosecutor Jeff Sessions when the latter was nominated to a federal judgeship.

Sessions later won Heflin's seat.

"While I was disappointed that Senator Heflin did not support my judicial confirmation, we've had cordial relationship through the years," Sessions said. "Although our judicial philosophies differ in some ways, I believe that was somewhat a product of the times."

Heflin had suffered from heart trouble for years prior to his death on Tuesday. He was also a diabetic.