Former U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin (search), a popular Alabama politician who served three terms in Washington, has died, lawmakers announced Tuesday. He was 83.

Heflin's death was announced on the floor of the state Senate, which held a moment of silence.

The cause of death was not immediately clear. Heflin had undergone heart procedures in recent years and had been hospitalized for the last couple of days, according to a longtime friend, Joseph Ware, at Heflin's home in Tuscumbia.

Heflin, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 and retired after 18 years. He served on the Judiciary and Ethics committees and the panel that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. He was viewed as the chamber's top authority on ethics, heading the ethics panel for nearly a decade when Democrats were in the majority.

On the judiciary panel, he was remembered for joining in the votes that rejected the nomination of Robert Bork (search) to the U.S. Supreme Court and Alabama federal prosecutor Jeff Sessions (search) to a federal judgeship. The tables eventually turned, with Sessions, a Republican, winning Heflin's seat when he retired.

"All through life I've found out that we don't necessarily like all decisions that are made," Heflin told The Associated Press shortly before his retirement in January 1997. He said the decision to oppose the Bork nomination in 1987 was his most difficult confirmation vote.

Sessions issued a statement Tuesday night remembering Heflin as "one of Alabama's most noteworthy leaders."

While not as fiery on the campaign stump, Heflin was almost as effective as his contemporary, the late four-time Alabama Gov. George Wallace (search), said Jess Brown, political science professor at Athens State University.

"He had the personality to go one-on-one with voters, with farmers in rural areas. He knew how to interact with a voter and give that voter a moment in the sunshine, let them know somebody in power cared about them," Brown said.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Heflin served during the confirmation fight over the nomination of Clarence Thomas (search) to the Supreme Court, taking part when Anita Hill (search) raised her sexual harassment claims. He was lampooned about it in a "Saturday Night Live" television skit, with the late comic Chris Farley (search) portraying Heflin.

Farley said the Heflin character was influenced partly by the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn.

Before he was elected to the Senate, Heflin spearheaded judicial reform in Alabama as the state's chief justice.

He was remembered as "the father of the total revision of Alabama's courts ... a national leader in the state courts," said former Chief Justice C.C. "Bo" Torbert.