Federal Judge Oberdorfer, Who Died at 94, ‘Tried to Do Justice Wherever Possible’
By Zoe Tillman and Tony Mauro
Judge Louis Oberdorfer, who spent more than three decades serving on the federal court bench
in Washington, died on February 21 at age 94. In 60-plus years of practicing law, Oberdorfer
was on the front lines of the fight for civil rights, from combatting racial discrimination to
advocating for prisoners’ rights. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black; worked
in private practice at what would eventually become Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr;
served in the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; and helped
establish the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Legal Services Corporation.
In a statement on behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, Kerry
Kennedy called Oberdorfer, who was appointed to the court in 1977, a “towering figure in the
American judicial system” and said that throughout his career he “remained a dynamic legal
mind dedicated to pursuing America’s most just future.” The Lawyers’ Committee said in a
statement that he “made profound and lasting contributions in the fight for racial and social
justice in America.”
Oberdorfer’s former clerks, colleagues and friends recalled some of the highlights of his career
and shared their thoughts on his legacy with Legal Times.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She sat on the D.C. Circuit when Oberdorfer
was a district judge:
Lou was a man who lived greatly in the law. I count it my good fortune to have been among the
legions who learned from the products of his bright mind and caring heart. He was the most
dedicated, the least self-regarding, and he had no fear of adventure.
Sarah Cleveland, a professor at Columbia Law School. She clerked for Oberdorfer from 1992
to 1993:
He was one of the first judges who was really upset by the difference in…federal sentencing
guidelines on individuals who used crack and individuals who used cocaine. There was a case
our term in which two guys and their girlfriend were prosecuted for making crack, and the
girlfriend had basically just lived in the house, and she was facing a 20-year sentence.
[Oberdorfer] declared the guidelines unconstitutional, and he was of course reversed by the D.C.
Circuit. And when it came back to him on remand, he recused himself – he wouldn’t sentence
her. I think he’s been vindicated by history as to the unfairness of the crack cocaine sentencing
Retired U.S. District Judge James Robertson worked with Oberdorfer at Wilmer and through
the Lawyers’ Committee, and served with him on the bench:
He and I arrived at the firm of Wilmer at about the same time. I was fresh out of law school and
he was just returning to the firm from the Kennedy Justice Department. That was in the summer
of 1965. It was quite an education. Judge Oberdorfer kept asking me questions I didn’t know
how to answer. And that was his way of getting help and information from people who are
working for him. Most people would call it demanding, but he never pushed, he never scolded,
he never demanded, he just asked questions. And after a while you learned that you had to get
out there and get ahead of him and find out what the answers to the questions were. That was
quite an education for me.
In the last 10 or 15 years of his active life on the bench, he was quite a welcome guest judge in
courts of appeals all over the country. He had a national reputation. Judges from all over the
country wanted him to come and sit with him. You don’t just say, I want to go sit with the Fifth
Circuit, you go by invitation. And there are a few judges who do it, and who are sought after and
welcomed, and he was one of them. He was held in great respect all over the country.
Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Tatel was connected to
Oberdorfer through his work at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,
and also worked with him to set up the Legal Services Corporation:
He came to Chicago [in 1969] to get the leaders of the Chicago bar to establish a Chicago
lawyers’ committee. I was practicing law in Chicago at the time. My immediate reaction was
that this is a very extraordinary lawyer. Here he is, a major partner in a major law firm, and he’s
devoting his energies and all of his personal contacts to creating an organization through which
lawyers can focus their pro bono activities. I knew he had been an assistant attorney general, I
knew about all of his accomplishments. I thought to myself right away, what a wonderful role
model for a young lawyer.
He was inspirational, not because of what he said, but because of what he did. The way in which
he practiced law was particularly inspirational to my whole generation. There are lots of people
my age who, I can assure you, will tell you they were influenced in the way they shaped their
career and their understanding of their professional responsibility.
Michael Levy, a partner at Bingham McCutchen. He clerked for Oberdorfer from 1988 to
Spending a year with such a smart, kind, passionate believer in the law and the law’s role in
society is something that sticks with you for the rest of your career.
He was perhaps the best storyteller I’ve ever encountered. He had a plethora of inevitably
entertaining, fascinating stories. Part of it is just recognizing this is a man who was best friends
with Byron White, worked for Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department, and clerked for Hugo
Black. He had an incredible array of experiences and inevitably would tell stories that would
leave your jaw on the ground when you realized what he’d been able to witness and accomplish
in his life, but they always seemed to be injected with humor and modesty.
Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He appeared
before Oberdorfer when he was an attorney and served with him on the bench:
Judges are constrained in what we can do because we’re supposed to follow the law, but there
are a lot of gray areas in the law. When [Oberdorfer] saw the gray areas and when he saw
injustices being done, he would try to do the just thing, and/or to force people before him to do
the right thing. He viewed his role, I think, as trying to do justice wherever possible.
[During a birthday party for Judge William Bryant], Judge Oberdorfer said that there were two
people in his life whom he knew who really understood the Constitution as it applied to real
people in the real world and interpreted it in that context, and that was Justice [Hugo] Black and
Judge Bryant. And I think I would add Judge Oberdorfer as someone who really saw the
Constitution in that light and tried to do his very best to see how judicial decisions would affect
real people and to do what he could to do justice.
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She served
with Oberdorfer on the bench:
He believed, as many of us do, in being fair and reasonable, and he cared dearly about people
who were not likely to have equal access to the courts because they were less wealthy. I know
when I was in private practice he called somebody at my law firm and said, can somebody come
down to take a case. The lawyer said, if Judge Oberdorfer calls, we go. And I understand that
now in hindsight. He was such a wise man.
Ronald Goldfarb, a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former Justice Department official
under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He wrote a book about the Kennedy Justice
Department in 1995:
One of Robert F. Kennedy’s wise moves when he became Attorney General was bringing in
department heads who were men of quiet but respected accomplishments, and following their
suggestions and allowing them to set policies. John Douglas, Burke Marshall, Archibald Cox
were examples, as was Lou Oberdorfer. Quiet, non-political, with expertise in their fields, these
men set the tone and quality at Justice. Wise leaders know how to choose lieutenants, and this
is what RFK did.
When an organized crime case had tax implications, as they often did, Lou had to sign off on our
actions, always caring about “the symmetry of the revenue policies” our cases impacted on.
That was the case right up to the morning of the assassination when we debated a prosecution I
proposed concerning a major mob figure. The Criminal Division signed off on my proposal; Lou
voiced concerns about the tax law implications, and we broke for lunch so RFK could consider
the debate. Needless to say, we never got back to that meeting.
David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He clerked for
Oberdorfer from 1978 to 1979:
He’s an amazing man, a wonderful mentor. He had clerked for Justice [Hugo] Black and valued
the relationship between judge and clerk and demonstrated that every day with all of us. He
was a tremendous mentor and exemplified a commitment to public service.
He was full of very interesting and important historical perspectives on the civil rights movement
and he deeply affected all of us as clerks. He personally helped me and encouraged me to do
public service. As a judge, he leaned on folks for pro bono work. He brought out the best in
people. He’s going to be greatly missed.
Ariel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the attorney general in the Office of the Attorney
General for the District of Columbia. He clerked for Oberdorfer from 2003 to 2004:
He is a hero of mine and a total model of the role we as lawyers should strive to play, and was a
gentle and generous mentor to me and so many. He emerged from a city where the Ku Klux Klan
had been dominant, helped on behalf of the Robert Kennedy-led Justice Department to quell the
crisis in that city, Birmingham, Alabama, after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and was
a lead lawyer for the Kennedy administration in connection with the resolution of the Bay of Pigs
crisis. And then, after all that, we was a fiercely independent and careful judge who for over 30
years sought to implement the principles he liked to quote from his mentor Justice Black.
Judge Joan Zeldon of the District of Columbia Superior Court appeared before Oberdorfer
when she was practicing at Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn and represented American
Merchant Seamen seeking veteran’s status:
There was a lot of bias and prejudice against [merchant seamen] in the military. He did a
brilliant job, and held that denial of veteran’s benefits had been arbitrary and capricious.
He had a wonderful presence. To me, he was like Moses carrying the Ten Commandments when
he came on the bench to hear our case carrying the record that I had prepared. He just had a
presence about him that was so impressive. We were very lucky that a man of that stature, that
courage, that intellectual capacity wound up with the case and ruled fairly.
William Orrick III, special counsel at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass. His father, William Orrick,
Jr., who died in 2003, was a federal judge and ran the Justice Department’s civil division
during the Kennedy administration:
I will remember Judge Oberdorfer as a man of uncompromising intellect, integrity and values, a
man who was deeply loyal to his friends and devoted to the law. He was an integral part of the
Kennedy Justice Department. He remained a close friend of mine and advisor to the Kennedys
and others, like Byron White and my father, who were part of the “band of brothers” that made
such a difference during the days of the New Frontier and throughout their lives. He left an
indelible mark on anyone who knew him.