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State’s unified judicial system marks 50 years

It’s been 50 years since the constitutional ratification that reformed the state’s judicial system into the uniform structure of today.

Some of the key players in that effort, young political newcomers at the time, reunited in Birmingham recently to recount the years-long grassroots effort that led to the overhaul of the judicial branch to make it more responsive to Alabamians, and more fair, especially to Black and poor citizens of the state.

Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal covered the event organized by the Alabama State Bar.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Howell Helfin is credited with leading the reform effort.

“In 1973, there were 85 trial courts in Alabama, apart from probate and municipal courts, with 23 different names, each with varying procedures, depending on the county,” Tom Heflin, Howell Heflin’s son, told a crowd in Birmingham.

“You didn’t know going from one county to the other what kind of legal jurisdiction you were going to face, what rules you were going to face … it varied from county to county,” Heflin said.

Justices of the peace often acted separately in their local communities and backlogs meant trials and appeals took years.

“Alabama’s courts had a horrible reputation,” Heflin said.

The reform efforts started in the mid-60s, Heflin said. The Citizens Conference on Courts, organized in 1966 was a bringing together of not just judicial groups but organizations representing women and Black voters.

Initially seeing success in the Senate, former Gov. George Wallace opposed the efforts and delayed it in the House.

It was when Albert Brewer became governor that the effort gained traction. In 1968, Brewer appointed a constitutional revision commission, charged with rewriting the 1901 Constitution. That effort was abandoned again when George Wallace was reelected in 1970, the junior Heflin said.

But work continued and eventually legislation passed the Senate and House and won voter approval.

“It was a political grassroots campaign from the very beginning,” Mike House said about the 1973 efforts. House was Heflin’s chief of staff.

“We knew that we had to do this, we knew that we were going to be up against a lot, a lot of opposition.”

House said most of the men leading the charge were young and Heflin, from north Alabama, was a bit of a political outsider.

“We didn’t know that it couldn’t be done,” House said. “The key was preparation, strategy.”

House described how, before 1973, in the Black Belt counties, a probate judge could also oversee criminal and civil trials. The system was most unfair to Black residents, he said.

Most of the effort’s opposition came from probate judges, county and clerks who didn’t want change, House said.

Former Justice Champ Lyons described a complicated, ineffective system in civil procedures such as divorce, child custody, auto accidents

“The system needs to function with the requisite degree of simplicity and at the same time with thorough discovery so that the judges and the jury have the best-prepared case ….” Lyons said.

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