Famed Civil Rights Lawyer John Payton Dies

John Payton 1946-2012

John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, passed away last week following a brief illness. He was 65 years old.

Payton was a graduate of Pomona College in California. He also attended Harvard Law School. He would later join the Washington firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, where he was a partner for 20 years.

As a Civil Rights lawyer, Payton defended the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy before the Supreme Court. He also guided other winnings, including "Lewis v. City of Chicago", which justified the rights of over 6,000 applicants who pursued careers as firefighters in the City of Chicago, and "Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder", which challenged the core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the early 1990's, Payton left private practice to become corporation counsel for the District of Columbia.

Payton and his wife Gay McDougall were quite the power couple. He left D.C. in 1994 to join her in South Africa, where she served as member of the Independent Electoral Commission, overseeing the country's first post-Apartheid democratic elections. Payton  worked as part of an international team of lawyers that supported their efforts.

He served as president of the District of Columbia Bar Association from 2001- 2002. He also taught as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and at the Georgetown Law Center. During the spring of 2007, he taught a course on "The Constitution and Democracy" at Howard University Law School, where he was named the James Nabrit, Jr. Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law.

In 2008, he departed Wilmer Hale for good as he took his post at the NAACP.

The National Law Journal named Payton to its list of “The Decade's Most Influential Lawyers” in 2010. 

Following Payton's passing, President Obama stated, "The legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John's passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms."

A statement from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law described Payton as "a visionary who worked tirelessly to promote racial justice and equality nationwide. His iconic legacy will live on through his instrumental work, which includes successful Supreme Court arguments, on a wide array of civil rights issues including educational opportunities, affirmative action, employment discrimination, and voting rights."

“John was a brilliant legal mind with immeasurable passion for civil and human rights,” said Lawyers’ Committee Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “He was a great friend and colleague who will be tremendously missed.”

An official statement from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund describes him as “a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all of our voices.”

"John Payton was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers our nation has ever had and our world has ever known,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.  “From defending affirmative action to fighting mass incarcerations to protecting voting rights, John defended civil rights gains and won civil rights victories.  He was a dear friend, a valued councilor, and a leader of leaders."