U.S. District Senior Judge Louis Oberdorfer died last night at age 94, according to an announcement from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
"Judge Oberdorfer's entire life was devoted to the highest principles of equality, fairness and the rule of law," said U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth in a statement. "He was an exemplary jurist, a gentleman to all, and dear friend and mentor to those of us who had the good fortune to work beside him. We will miss him greatly."
Born in Birmingham, Ala. – yesterday was his 94th birthday – Oberdorfer earned his law degree in 1946 from Yale Law School after serving four years in the military, according to a court biography. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black after graduating and then worked in private practice until 1961, when he joined the U.S. Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Oberdorfer returned to private practice in 1965. Before his appointment, Oberdorfer was a partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which later became Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr. The year he was appointed to the bench, Oberdorfer was serving as president of the D.C. Bar. He had also served as co-chair of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which he helped create, and chief executive of the Legal Services Corp.
As a judge, Oberdorfer made local headlines in 1988 when he made a plea for prisoners' rights and called for reforms at the city's now-shuttered prison in Lorton, Va. In 2000, he authored a strong dissent to an opinion finding that D.C. residents had no right to vote in Congress. Oberdorfer, according to news reports at the time, found that D.C. residents deserved a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives under the Constitution and the principles of equal protection.
In the 2000s, Oberdorfer presided over a high-profile case against Exxon Mobil Corporation over alleged killings and beatings by security forces who guarded an Exxon natural gas facility in Indonesia. The case was reassigned to Lamberth in 2009.
When asked to describe what type of judge he was in a 1997 interview with Bar Report, Oberdorfer replied by quoting Justice Black's 1940 opinion in Chambers v. Florida that read: "No higher duty, no more solemn responsibility, rests upon this Court, than that of translating into living law and maintaining this constitutional shield deliberately planned and inscribed for the benefit of every human being subject to our Constitution—of whatever race, creed, or persuasion."