In 1987, Alabama Democratic Senator Howell Heflin found himself doggedly pursued by reporters as the potential swing vote during Senate confirmation hearings on staunchly conservative judge Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nomination was central to Reagan's ability to maintain a conservative majority on the high court, and the country waited anxiously as Heflin continuously refused to reveal how he would vote. As John Hayman recounts in his new biography, A Judge in the Senate: Howell Heflin's Career of Politics and Principle, Heflin eventually cast the decisive vote against Bork, resulting in Bork's rejection. Heflin argued persuasively that Bork had taken positions that suggested an individual's right to privacy was not explicitly guaranteed under the Constitution and that his commitment to equal rights for all citizens was tenuous at best, Hayman writes. Hayman's account of Heflin's moment in the national spotlight is central to this interesting account of the senator's life and career. Hayman argues convincingly that Heflin was a progressive politician in a state perhaps best known for its violent opposition to the civil rights movement and its segregationist past under former Governor George Wallace.
Hayman sees Heflin as a new breed of Alabama politician who returned from World War II to do battle against the reactionary Wallace machine and the negative perceptions of the state that were holding back economic development. A country lawyer, Heflin had represented black clients at a time when it was unpopular to do so. Later, he instituted badly needed judicial reform as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court to make the court system fairer to all the state's citizenry.
Hayman, who died before finishing the biography, was aided in its completion by his wife, Clara Ruth Hayman. The book, which includes an introduction by former presidential candidate Bob Dole, is based on extensive research. The authors consulted the Alabama state archives, the University of Alabama where Heflin attended law school and documents provided by the former senator and his family, colleagues and acquaintances.
Dave Bryan is a writer in Montgomery, Alabama.