Fed­eral judge ruled on abor­tion protests and Ku Klux Klan’s right to march

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MATT SCHUDEL schudelm@wash­post.com

Louis F. Ober­dor­fer, a long­time D.C.-based fed­eral judge who ruled on gov­ern­men­tal mat­ters and di­vi­sive is­sues in­clud­ing abor­tion protests and Ku Klux Klan marches, died Feb. 21 at his home in McLean. He died on his 94th birth­day.

He had two strokes in re­cent years, said a son, Thomas Ober­dor­fer.

Be­fore he was ap­pointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1977, Judge Ober­dor­fer had been a tax lawyer and an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral in the Jus­tice De­part­ment in the 1960s.

Judge Ober­dor­fer ran the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s tax di­vi­sion un­der At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert F. Kennedy but was also a key mem­ber of the fed­eral fight for civil rights in the South.

In 1963, he helped found the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law, a group of lawyers seek­ing to en­force civil rights laws in the South. Dur­ing his term as co-chair­man of the group in 1968-69, he trav­eled through­out the coun­try, help­ing to es­tab­lish lo­cal chap­ters of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

De­spite his back­ground in civil rights, Judge Ober­dor­fer be­came a cen­tral fig­ure in a 1990 case brought by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in sup­port of the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march through the streets of Washington.

When the D.C. government and Na­tional Park Ser­vice said they could not guar­an­tee the safety of the marchers, Judge Ober­dor­fer ruled that the Klan had the right to march un­der the First Amend­ment.

The march took place on Oct. 28, 1990, as 27 mem­bers of the Klan pa­raded along Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue NW to the U.S. Capi­tol. They were guarded by more than 3,000 po­lice of­fi­cers in riot gear. More than 1,000 counter-demon­stra­tors sought to break through the po­lice pha­lanx, re­sult­ing in 40 ar­rests and in­juries to 14 peo­ple, in­clud­ing eight po­lice of­fi­cers.

“We knew this was go­ing to hap­pen,” D.C. Po­lice Chief Isaac Ful­wood Jr. said. “We thought that the judge erred. I thought he used poor judg­ment.”

Among the more than 1,300 opin­ions is­sued dur­ing his ca­reer, Judge Ober­dor­fer ruled in 1983 that In­te­rior Sec­re­tary James G. Watt over­stepped his author­ity by sell­ing coal-field leases in North Dakota de­spite or­ders to the con­trary by a con­gres­sional com­mit­tee.

In 1984, the judge dis­missed a suit by U.S. ci­ti­zens of Ja­panese de­scent held in de­ten­tion camps dur­ing World War II. He ruled that the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had ex­pired but urged the plain­tiffs to take their cause to Congress. Four years later, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan signed the Civil Lib­er­ties Act of 1988, au­tho­riz­ing repa­ra­tion pay­ments of $20,000 each to about 60,000 Ja­panese Amer­i­can sur­vivors of in­tern­ment camps.

In 1993, Judge Ober­dor­fer fined the lead­ers of Op­er­a­tion Res­cue al­most $300,000 for vi­o­lat­ing an in­junc­tion not to block en­trances to abor­tion clin­ics.

Writ­ing in a 2000 dis­sent to a rul­ing by a three-judge panel, Judge Ober­dor­fer main­tained that D.C. res­i­dents de­served the same con­sti­tu­tional right to rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress as other U.S. ci­ti­zens had.

In a 1988 speech, Judge Ober­dor­fer crit­i­cized a fed­eral ap­peals court de­ci­sion that over­turned lim­its on the num­ber of in­mates who could be housed in prisons, call­ing the prob­lem a “silent cri­sis.” He ap­pealed to the me­mory of the civil rights era, when “the pleas of the mi­nor­ity” were heard.

Louis Falk Ober­dor­fer was born Feb. 21, 1919, in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., where his fa­ther was a lawyer. He grad­u­ated from Dart­mouth Col­lege in 1939 and left Yale Law School one se­mes­ter short of grad­u­a­tion to serve in the Army dur­ing World War II.

In 1946, he com­pleted his law de­gree at Yale, where one of his class­mates was By­ron White, later a jus­tice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judge Ober­dor­fer was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Hugo L. Black, a fel­low Alaba­man, be­fore join­ing the Washington of­fice of Paul, Weiss, Whar­ton & Gar­ri­son, a tax law firm. In 1951, he moved to what later be­came Wilmer, Cut­ler & Pick­er­ing.

He re­turned to the firm af­ter his stint at the Jus­tice De­part­ment from 1961 to 1965. He served on the D.C. fed­eral bench un­til 1992.

He then went on “se­nior sta­tus” and con­tin­ued to hear cases in Washington and in other fed­eral dis­tricts un­til 2009.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 71 years, Elizabeth Weil Ober­dor­fer of McLean; four chil­dren, John Ober­dor­fer and Wil­liam Ober­dor­fer, both of Washington, Kathryn Ober­dor­fer of Den­ver and Thomas Ober­dor­fer of Ar­ling­ton County; five grand­chil­dren; and three great-grand­chil­dren.

While serv­ing in the Jus­tice De­part­ment, Judge Ober­dor­fer helped over­see the in­te­gra­tion of the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi in 1962. A year later, he sought to re­solve civil rights mat­ters in his na­tive Birm­ing­ham.

“When I was grow­ing up, Birm­ing­ham and At­lanta were peer cities,” Judge Ober­dor­fer said in an in­ter­view for the D.C. Bar’s Leg­ends in the Law se­ries in the 1990s.

But Alanta be­came the pre-em­i­nent city in the South, he said, largely be­cause of Birm­ing­ham’s re­sis­tance to civil rights, led by po­lice com­mis­sioner Bull Connor.

“I think that set the city of Birm­ing­ham back 50 years,” Judge Ober­dor­fer said.


Judge Louis F. Ober­dor­fer ran the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s tax di­vi­sion un­der At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert F. Kennedy, then served on the D.C. fed­eral bench un­til 1992, the year this photo was taken. He then went on “se­nior sta­tus” and heard cases un­til 2009.

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