Since the matter of the Metro transit strike came before him last Thursday, United States District Judge Louis Falk Oberdorfer has had a difficult and tricky course to navigate.
Simply issuing an order for the striking Metro workers to stop strike activity would probably not have got them to return to work. On the other hand, established procedures did exist for dealing with the problems that took the workers out to begin with. If Oberdorfer was not careful, he could have overridden those procedures and embroiled himself as the chief arbitrator in a complicated labor dispute.
By most accounts, Oberdorfer avoided the pitfalls, finding innovative, common-sense ways to deal with the problem and managing, in the process, to convince striking workers that he was listening to their problems.
"There are some judges who are superb lawyers," a long-time friend and associate of Oberdorfer's said yesterday. "There are judges who are compassionate.There are judges who have exquisite judgment. And Judge Oberdorfer has them all. You see it in this case - all three."
Last Thursday, when Metro officials asked him to issue a temporary restraining order against striking employes, Oberdorfer was confronted with what he characterized as a "mutiny."
Against the direction of their employers and contrary to the wishes of their union's leadership, Metro employes had walked off the job to protest Metro's failure to pay 20-cent-an-hour cost-of-living increases fue them on July 2.
Oberdorfer, whose specialty was tax law, took the unusual step of asking the District Bar Association to recommend some labor lawyers whom he could call on to ensure that the issues were being fully developed. Joseph (Chip) Yablouski and Charles Booth were selected and served without pay.
Through questioning of officials of both Metro and Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Oberdorfer established that union members had never been fully informed that federal law prohibited them from striking, that federal law required disputes between union and managements to be settled by arbitration and that the membership could take the union leadership to court if it was not satisfied with the way things were being done.
Since coming onto the bench last fall, the 59-year-old judge has given signs of being cautious, yet innovative in his approach to the issues coming before him, according to lawyers and observers who have watched him operate.
After graduation from Yale Law School, Oberdorfer clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. In 1961, Oberdorfer was appointed by President Kennedy to be assistant attorney general in charge of the tax division. In 1962, Oberdorfer helped with efforts to raise $53 million in supplies to buy the release of more than 1,000 prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
In 1963, Oberdorfer was instrumental in helping to form the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, founded at the request of President Kennedy. Oberdorfer, a native of Birmingham, Ala., later served as co-chairman of the committee.
When Oberdorfer took a sabbatical leave from the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, where he was a senior partner, he spent his time working locally for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program.