WASHINGTON (AP) – Louis F. Oberdorfer, a former deputy to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s who later heard hundreds of cases as a federal judge in Washington, has died.
Oberdorfer died Thursday on his 94th birthday, said Sheldon Snook, a spokesman for the federal court in Washington.
Oberdorfer was appointed to the court in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and took senior status in 1992, meaning he continued to hear cases but fewer of them. He heard cases until several years ago. He had two strokes in recent years, said Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the Chief Judge of the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia. He said Oberdorfer died in his sleep.
As a judge, Oberdorfer authored more than 1,300 opinions. In the late 1980s, one of his rulings pushed the U.S. Defense Department to extend veteran status to thousands of men who sailed merchant ships during World War II. In 1990, he issued a ruling ordering the District of Columbia to give the Ku Klux Klan permission to march to the U.S. Capitol. He also made headlines for ignoring mandatory minimum prison terms for crack cocaine crimes. Congress has since changed the law, which came to be seen as unfair.
For years, Oberdorfer also oversaw cases involving Vietnamese orphans who were hurt in a plane crash in 1975 during the United States’ “Operation Babylift.” Lockheed Aircraft Corp. eventually paid millions to the victims.
More recently, in 2000, Oberdorfer was part of a three-judge panel that heard a lawsuit by District of Columbia residents arguing it was unconstitutional they weren’t allowed to elect representatives to Congress. Two judges agreed city residents were being treated unequally but said they couldn’t do anything to fix the situation. Oberdorfer, however, wrote a partial dissent saying Washington residents should get to elect members to the House of Representatives.
Oberdorfer grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and graduated from Dartmouth College. After getting a law degree from Yale, studies that were interrupted by his Army service during World War II, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black during the term that ran from 1946 to 1947.
In 1961, he became an Assistant Attorney General for Kennedy’s Justice Department, where he oversaw the tax division. In 1963, he helped organize the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which sent hundreds of lawyers to the South to support the civil rights movement. He left the Justice Department in 1965.
Oberdorfer argued before the Supreme Court on several occasions, including a 1969 case in which Mississippi was told to desegregate its schools.
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