D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference
June 20, 2015
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Remarks of Judge David S. Tatel
in Remembrance of Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer
Louis F. Oberdorfer: Born February 21, 1919 in Birmingham, Alabama; graduate of the
Yale Law School; served in the United States Army during World War II; law clerk to Justice
Hugo Black; founding partner of the law firm that became WilmerHale; Assistant Attorney
General in the Kennedy Administration; co-chairman of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Under Law; first president of the Legal Services Corporation; appointed to the United States
District Court by President Carter; husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather; friend and hero
to so many; died on his birthday, February 21, 2013.
Throughout his remarkable career, Louis Oberdorfer was motivated by two deeply held
convictions. The first – that lawyers have a professional responsibility to ensure that everyone has
access to the courts regardless of race, wealth or personal views – could be seen at work in 1963
when, at Louis’s suggestion, President John F. Kennedy called on the leaders of the bar to create
what was to become the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We could see Louis’s
belief, along with his love of history, at work a year later when Attorney General Robert Kennedy
sent him to Alabama to convince southern lawyers to advise their clients – local hotels, restaurants
and theaters – to obey the newly enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964. Louis told the lawyers the story
of General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Held in contempt of court by the very federal
judge the General had jailed following the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson paid his fine, saying in
words Louis quoted a century and a half later: “Obedience to the laws, even when we think them
unjustly applied, is the first duty of a citizen.” And we could see how strongly Louis felt about the
role lawyers play in protecting the rule of law when, as co-chair of the Lawyers’ Committee, he
stood before the Supreme Court in Alexander v. Holmes County, arguing against the Nixon
Administration’s effort to end court-ordered bussing, a key element of its southern strategy. He
made the Court a classic Oberdorfer offer: If, as the Justice Department claimed, it had too few
lawyers to enforce court orders in Mississippi, the Lawyers’ Committee would send volunteers to
do the job. Six days later, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of
Mississippi’s schools.
Judge Oberdorfer’s other guiding belief was his deep confidence in the federal courts as the
ultimate protector of constitutional rights. We can see this at work throughout his hundreds of
opinions, especially those concerning the treatment of prisoners and criminal defendants.
Regarding prisoners, Judge Oberdorfer was way ahead of his time. Years ago he explained
that “the disenfranchised and despised criminals who inhabit our prisons are helpless in the arena
of the public’s attitude. They have no political influence. They have no lobbyist. Few lawyers will
represent them.” When a certain federal appeals court reversed a district court order aimed at
reducing prison overcrowding, what did Judge Oberdorfer do? You guessed it: He called on the
DC Bar to create a cadre of volunteer lawyers – what he called “energetic lawyer-statesmen” – to
represent inmates with “legitimate grievances.”
We can also see Judge Oberdorfer’s judicial philosophy at work in his decisions as a
sentencing judge. Along with his dear friend, Judge William Bryant, the Judge was again ahead of
his time. An early and vociferous critic of the Sentencing Reform Act, he deplored the Draconian
and unfair sentences for crack cocaine. In one opinion, which Judge James Robertson called a
“masterpiece of legal writing and a window into the frustration – even the anguish – of the judge’s
job,” we can see Judge Oberdorfer’s characteristic compassion and candor. In considering the
constitutionality of the crack-cocaine disparity, the Judge thought it significant that the defendants
were addicts and “bit players in the conspiracy,” emphasizing what he called “the racist origins” of
the enhanced sentences for crack cocaine.
Louis Oberdorfer, Jim declared, was “a certified member of the Greatest Generation who
has been aboard the pendulum of history” long enough to have seen his views on prisons and
sentencing largely vindicated.
In 1948, Justice Black wrote this in Chambers v. Florida: “No higher duty, no more solemn
responsibility, rests upon this Court, than that of maintaining [a] constitutional shield
. . . for the benefit of every human being . . . of whatever race, creed or persuasion.” Justice Black
would have been proud of his future law clerk’s extraordinary career. For myself, I was indeed
fortunate to have known Louis Oberdorfer for virtually all of my career, to have had such a
wonderful friend and mentor, and to be a member of that generation of lawyers whose values
have been so deeply shaped by this remarkable man.