Louis F. Oberdorfer, federal judge in D.C. court

February 23, 2013

Louis F. Oberdorfer, a longtime D.C.-based federal judge who ruled on governmental matters and divisive issues including abortion protests and Ku Klux Klan marches, died Feb. 21 at his home in McLean. He died on his 94th birthday.

He had two strokes in recent years, said a son, Thomas Oberdorfer.

Before he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1977, Judge Oberdorfer had been a tax lawyer and an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department in the 1960s.

Judge Oberdorfer ran the Justice Department’s tax division under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy but was also a key member of the federal fight for civil rights in the South.

In 1963, he helped found the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group of lawyers seeking to enforce civil rights laws in the South. During his term as co-chairman of the group in 1968-69, he traveled throughout the country, helping to establish local chapters of the organization.


(Harry Naltchayan/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Despite his background in civil rights, Judge Oberdorfer became a central figure in a 1990 case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in support of the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march through the streets of Washington.

When the D.C. government and National Park Service said they could not guarantee the safety of the marchers, Judge Oberdorfer ruled that the Klan had the right to march under the First Amendment.

The march took place on Oct. 28, 1990, as 27 members of the Klan paraded along Constitution Avenue NW to the U.S. Capitol. They were guarded by more than 3,000 police officers in riot gear. More than 1,000 counter-demonstrators sought to break through the police phalanx, resulting in 40 arrests and injuries to 14 people, including eight police officers.

“We knew this was going to happen,” D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said. “We thought that the judge erred. I thought he used poor judgment.”

Among the more than 1,300 opinions issued during his career, Judge Oberdorfer ruled in 1983 that Interior Secretary James G. Watt overstepped his authority by selling coal-field leases in North Dakota despite orders to the contrary by a congressional committee.

In 1984, the judge dismissed a suit by U.S. citizens of Japanese descent held in detention camps during World War II. He ruled that the statute of limitations had expired but urged the plaintiffs to take their cause to Congress. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, authorizing reparation payments of $20,000 each to about 60,000 Japanese American survivors of internment camps.

In 1993, Judge Oberdorfer fined the leaders of Operation Rescue almost $300,000 for violating an injunction not to block entrances to abortion clinics.

Writing in a 2000 dissent to a ruling by a three-judge panel, Judge Oberdorfer maintained that D.C. residents deserved the same constitutional right to representation in Congress as other U.S. citizens had.

In a 1988 speech, Judge Oberdorfer criticized a federal appeals court decision that overturned limits on the number of inmates who could be housed in prisons, calling the problem a “silent crisis.” He appealed to the memory of the civil rights era, when “the pleas of the minority” were heard.

Louis Falk Oberdorfer was born Feb. 21, 1919, in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was a lawyer. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1939 and left Yale Law School one semester short of graduation to serve in the Army during World War II.

In 1946, he completed his law degree at Yale, where one of his classmates was Byron White, later a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judge Oberdorfer was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, a fellow Alabaman, before joining the Washington office of Paul, Weiss, Wharton & Garrison, a tax law firm. In 1951, he moved to what later became Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

He returned to the firm after his stint at the Justice Department from 1961 to 1965. He served on the D.C. federal bench until 1992.

He then went on “senior status” and continued to hear cases in Washington and in other federal districts until 2009.

Survivors include his wife of 71 years, Elizabeth Weil Oberdorfer of McLean; four children, John Oberdorfer and William Oberdorfer, both of Washington, Kathryn Oberdorfer of Denver and Thomas Oberdorfer of Arlington County; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

While serving in the Justice Department, Judge Oberdorfer helped oversee the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. A year later, he sought to resolve civil rights matters in his native Birmingham.

“When I was growing up, Birmingham and Atlanta were peer cities,” Judge Oberdorfer said in an interview for the D.C. Bar’s Legends in the Law series in the 1990s.

But Alanta became the pre-eminent city in the South, he said, largely because of Birmingham’s resistance to civil rights, led by police commissioner Bull Connor.

“I think that set the city of Birmingham back 50 years,” Judge Oberdorfer said.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.