Joseph A. Fanelli, 72, an attorney who had engaged in private law practice in Washington since the mid-1940s who had been a government lawyer during the New Deal, died Oct. 29 at the National Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Hospital following a heart attack. He lived in Arlington.

For about the past 10 years, he had been affiliated with the Washington firm of Corcoran Youngman & Rowe.

Mr. Fanelli came to Washington in 1935 as an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1937 and 1938, he served on the staff of the U.S. Solicitor General. He then was acting general counsel and chief attorney with the Railroad Retirement Board before becoming chairman of the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals in 1941.

He was a special assistant to the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior, and first assistant to the head of the Justice Department's civil division, before leaving government in 1944.

He was a member of the District and American bar associations. He was a member of the University and the Army Navy Country clubs.

Mr. Fanelli was a native of New York City and a 1932 graduate of Dartmouth College. He was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1935, where he was an editor of the law review.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Steger Fanelli, and a son, Joseph A. Jr., both of Arlington; two daughters, Mary Magnuson and Diane Fanelli, both of Albuquerque, N.M.; three brothers, two sisters, and a grandchild.