Louis F. Claiborne, 72, a longtime deputy solicitor general who was known for the wry eloquence of his oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court and for the scholarly elegance of the briefs he wrote for the federal government, died of cancer Oct. 6 at his home in Wivenhoe, England.
Mr. Claiborne, who argued more than 60 cases before the Supreme Court, served in the office of the solicitor general, on-and-off, from 1962 to 1985.
Over the years, he argued civil rights, land, natural resources, and environmental cases, as well as law involving the rights of American Indians. He eventually came to preside over the solicitor general's caseload of "original jurisdiction" cases. These are rare cases that originate in the Supreme Court, such as disputes with foreign governments, between states, or between the federal government and states.
Lincoln Caplan, the author of a history of the solicitor general's office, "The Tenth Justice," devoted a chapter to the life and times of Mr. Claiborne. In it, he wrote of a 1983 brief that Mr. Claiborne composed about a case involving a lagoon near Venice, Calif. It inspired Mr. Claiborne to a flight of erudition that not only saw him triumph in the court but also further endeared him to many critics and lawyers who cherished his writing.
Disagreeing with the finding of the California Supreme Court, he wrote that "the California Supreme Court appears enthusiastically to have embraced a new legal Renaissance, in which modern 'humanists' rediscover old texts and invoke the distant past to liberate the spirit from the confining 'shackles' of a more conventional era. But we are not witnessing Petrarch, mildly unorthodox in reviving Cicero, or Boccaccio retelling irreverent stories borrowed from Ovid. Here, the half-forgotten ancient models are the codes of the Emperor Justinian and Alfonso the Wise of Castile, the Magna Carta wrested from King John and the treatise of Henry de Bracton. We may question whether such a revolution, not in literature or philosophy, but in the law of property, even on the claim of returning to an earlier wisdom, is equally to be applauded."
Mr. Claiborne first left the office of the solicitor general in 1970 for a three-year stint as a visiting fellow at the University of Sussex in England. Then, between 1973 and 1978, he divided his time between England, where he was a part-time barrister, and Washington, where he worked summers for the solicitor general. He then served as a deputy solicitor general until retiring in 1985 and moving to England.
As one of the few lawyers to serve as an American lawyer and also as a British barrister, he told Caplan of one problem he had confronted. One summer, after he had become a barrister but was writing briefs for the solicitor general, he found himself called before the Supreme Court to argue a case.
He called U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger with a problem. He explained to the highly proper Burger that he was now a barrister, and that under ancient custom, a barrister appearing in any court in the world had to wear the proper attire of powdered wig and robes.
Amazingly, Burger expressed enthusiasm for the idea, as did Mr. Claiborne's boss, then-Solicitor General Robert H. Bork. Sadly, Mr. Claiborne chose to appear in the traditional morning coat.
Mr. Claiborne was born in Europe, where his father was an international banker until World War II. The younger Mr. Claiborne graduated from high school in New Jersey, then returned to Europe, where he graduated from the University of Louvain in Belgium and the Science Politique in Paris. He then returned to his ancestral New Orleans and graduated from Tulane University law school in 1953.
He was a lawyer and prosecutor in New Orleans before serving from 1960 to 1962 as senior law clerk to J. Skelly Wright, who was then a U.S. district judge for Louisiana. Judge Wright later was named to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington and helped his clerk gain a job with the solicitor general.
Mr. Claiborne, in later years, maintained that he was the first non-Ivy League lawyer to get a job in the solicitor general's office and claimed that the then-Solicitor General Archibald Cox was reluctant to hire this southern lawyer with the strange background. Cox and Mr. Claiborne became fast friends, but Mr. Claiborne's "exotic" past did come up during oral arguments in a civil rights case.
While arguing a case involving voting registration irregularities in Louisiana, one of the judges noted figures from a "Claiborne Parish." He asked Mr. Claiborne about the parish--the Louisiana equivalent of a county--and was told by Mr. Claiborne that it was named after his great-great-great-grandfather, the first American governor of Louisiana, and that the parish was among the worst in the state.
Mr. Claiborne did not live by the law alone. His hobbies included a kind of "sculpting" of wooden birds--works he saw hung in galleries in Britain, New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as in the offices of the solicitor general.
In 1985, he settled in England and until his death served as counsel to the San Francisco law firm of Washburn, Briscoe & McCarthy. One of the firm's senior partners, John Briscoe, who had argued cases against Mr. Claiborne before the Supreme Court signed him to a contract soon after learning of Mr. Claiborne's availability. Perhaps a measure of his eagerness to sign Mr. Claiborne, as well as the good will on all sides, was that the contract was written on a paper napkin from the San Francisco restaurant where they lunched. The napkin is still in Mr. Claiborne's personnel file.
Survivors include his wife of more than 40 years, Jackie, and two children, Andrew and Michele, all of Wivenhoe; a brother, Omer, of Santa Fe, N.M.; a sister, clothing designer Liz Claiborne of New York; and six grandchildren.