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Louis Oberdorfer, judge, official fought for civil rights

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

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

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Before he was appointed to the US 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.

He 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 seeking to enforce civil rights laws in the South. During his term as cochairman of the group in 1968-69, he traveled across the country 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 Washington 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.

‘We thought that the judge erred. I thought he used poor judgment.’

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The march occurred Oct. 28, 1990, as 27 members of the Klan paraded along Constitution Avenue to the US Capitol. They were guarded by more than 3,000 police officers in riot gear. More than 1,000 counterdemonstrators 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,’’ Washington 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 Watt overstepped his ­authority by selling coalfield leases in North Dakota despite ­orders to the contrary by a congressional committee.

In 1984, the judge dismissed a suit by US 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 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.

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 Supreme Court justice.

Judge Oberdorfer was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, a fellow Alabaman.

Judge Oberdorfer leaves his wife of 71 years, Elizabeth Weil Oberdorfer of McLean; four children, John and William, both of Washington, Kathryn of Denver and Thomas of Arlington, Va.; 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 Atlanta became the preeminent 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.

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