Reminiscing with former Justice Torbert

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, November 19, 2014


For several years I have been meaning to visit my friend and former boss Clement Clay ‘Bo’ Torbert of Opelika, who served Alabama as a state representative, a state senator, chief justice and chief administrator of Alabama’s Judicial Branch of Government.

In 1958 Bo was elected to represent Lee County in the state legislature. In 1966 and again in 1974, he was elected to the Alabama Senate. The Capitol Press Corps named him “most outstanding freshman legislator” in 1959 and “most effective senator” 10 years later. I worked as a court administrator under him when he served as chief justice.

We went to Jimmy’s in downtown Opelika, one of Bo’s favorite eateries, and had a great time reminiscing about the 15 years or so we spent working on the adoption of Chief Justice Howell Heflin’s court reform in the early 1970s and implementing it under Bo’s tenure. As a state senator in 1973 Bo, along with Sen. Stewart O’Bannon of Florence and Sen. Bob Harris of Decatur, were the floor leaders who helped secure passage of Heflin’s court reform package, later to become Constitutional Amendment 328.

Proposed Amendment 328, which would significantly reform the state’s judicial system, went on to pass the Senate with ease and, under the leadership of Reps. Ronnie Flippo and Bob Hill, Jr. of Florence, also cleared the House. It was ratified by state voters in December of 1973.

Legislation to implement the new constitutional provisions of Amendment 328 was adopted in 1975, but I feared the implementation process, which would involve courthouse politics in all of Alabama’s 67 counties, would be controversial. Sure enough it was, and Heflin, who I believed had his sights on higher office, decided to not seek re-election in 1976.

I found that out one day when Heflin called me to his office and told me to get two press releases drafted without any knowledge of the court or court staff. One would be an announcement of his intent to seek re-election to office; the other would announce that he did not plan to seek re-election.

This confirmed my suspicion that he would not run. I also suspected he had given Bo a heads up. Heflin knew a rocky road was ahead for the next couple of years with regard to the changes to the financial structure of the court system, particularly the shifting of the primary financial responsibility from the counties to the state. I believe he felt Bo Torbert was the person, who could navigate those waters and successfully implement the construction of a totally revamped court system for the state.

So Heflin went back to his law practice in Tuscumbia. In the 1976 Democratic, Primary Torbert defeated Mobile lawyer and legislator Dugger Johnstone to become the state’s 25th chief justice. Two years later Heflin was elected to the U. S. Senate.

During his tenure on the court, Bo was elected chairman of the National Conference of Chief Justices and chairman of several other national and state judicial organizations. In 1979 he was elected to the Alabama Academy of Honor.

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. Email him at: