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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howell Heflin, July 9, 1974. Interview A-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Worries that campaign contributions affect judicial rulings

Heflin explains that running for office in Alabama puts judges in a predicament: they need campaign contributions to win their seat, but those contributions present a potential conflict of interest if the contributor might appear before the judge in the future. Heflin knew who many of his contributors were despite efforts to mask their identities. He worries that contributions might have a subconscious effect on his decision-making.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howell Heflin, July 9, 1974. Interview A-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
When you ran for chief justice, was the campaign different for that office from what it would be for another office?
HOWELL HEFLIN:
Well, yes and no. You've got the problem of trying to run from it from an ethical viewpoint. And you've got the problem of financial contributions. To run a campaign you've got to look at it from. . . it's in the same sense of a political campaign. You've got to have the mass media and advertising. And you've got to go around, see the people and everything else. But you have the problem of what do you do? [unclear] where you come into office in effect indebted to your supporters. And this is the thing, from a judicial position, that ought to be avoided to every degree. It ought not to be present. My campaign. . . the idea that they worked out in the beginning is that there would be a group that would raise money and I would not know how much money was raised or who the contributors were. This was the idea. . . shield me. . . this was lawyers from throughout the state. . . would shield me from being able to know who made contributions and prevent me from feeling I had any subconscious obligation to support people. Well, that's good in theory. Lawyers would send me checks. Hell, I'd know who sent it and that sort of thing. And then, of course, in my home area where I ran, citizens and other people raised money. Just a friendly or local pride in a native son running, that sort of thing. The end result was is this, that I ended up knowing about half of the people that made contributions to my campaign and about half of them that did not. Under that situation. . . really, when it got down to it, I ended up with about 90% of the lawyers supporting me in the race. So it may well. . . . I have not had any qualms about deciding cases against people who supported me. I may have the idea well I don't know, this fellow who's on the other side, he may have made a much larger contribution than the other. But I tried to come in and divorce completely the idea of who supported me or who didn't. Moneywise, I think it's in a, such a state of confusion that I would not know who did or did not. In my own judgment, I would know about 50%. You do know-and this is an evil of the elected system-you do know the man that [unclear] you, that worked, that did the leg work, that campaigned for you in this county and that county, and that sort of thing. So I think ours may have been a little unique in that method. I don't know of any other place-now you just ended up in New York for the position of the chief judge of the New York court of appeals, which is the equivalent of the supreme court of New York, a campaign where unofficial reports say that each candidate in that race, his supporters spent over one million dollars. Well, that's not healthy for a judicial system. I was down in New Orleans right after an election. I went down and made a speech to a meeting of all the judges. They elect their members of the supreme court by districts. And they had the two being elected from the New Orleans districts. And I understood there that those candidates, that their supporters must have spent $200,000 in behalf of each of the candidates. There was one candidate, fellow who was elected, named [unclear] who was the former law partner of mayor Landry, Boone Landry, the mayor of New Orleans. He was running against a fellow named Leon Sarpy who was largely a bar association and more of a large firm candidate. And at the same time they had Garrison running against a fellow named [unclear]. I don't think in that race as much money on each side was spent, but probably was a substantial amount in that Marcus-Garrison race. Garrison was defeated. But I mean it points out the evils of the elective system. Of course there are evils of the appointed system and I'm not getting off into a debate between that, but you're asking me about judicial politics. And your question was to me about my election. But it creeps in. I mean in all candor you can't say that it doesn't. But you try to divorce it as you can and as far as I know I don't think I've made any vote or any decision that was based on any political situation that I know of. I mean I've tried to be honest in my voting and not to letwho were my supporters and who were opposing me enter into it. Consciously I have. You never know subconsciously whether things enter into your mind or not. I mean you put it away, try to divorce it, but it's an ill of the system.