NEW YORK–John Payton, president and director-counselof the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and tireless advocate forjustice, equality and opportunity, died late Thursday at Johns HopkinsUniversity Hospital in Baltimore after a brief illness. He was 65.
Payton was the seventh leader of LDF, the nation’s first andpreeminent civil rights law firm. During his tenure, he guided the organizationto resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, whichvindicated the rights of more than 6,000 applicants who sought to becomefirefighters in the city of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal UtilityDistrict v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of acore provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Payton was revered as fearless, a guiding light, a brilliantadvocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thriveswhen it embraces all voices.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and hiswife were saddened to learn that their “dear friend” had died. Hecalled Payton “a true champion of equality” who “helped protectcivil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box. The legal community haslost a legend, and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget hiscourage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”
Obama said Payton will be remembered for “his courageand fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”
A native of Los Angeles and agraduate of Pomona College and Harvard LawSchool, Payton forged abrilliant career as a corporate attorney at the firm of Wilmer Hale where heheaded the firm’s litigation department. But he also always exercised a deepcommitment to public service through his pro bono work at the firm. He tookleave from Wilmer during the early 1990s to serve as the corporation counsel ofthe District of Columbia. He was president of the District of Columbia Bar from 2001 to 2002, a member ofthe American Law Institute, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and aMaster in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court. He was also affiliated witha number of civil rights and human rights organizations.
Payton taught as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and at the Georgetown LawCenter. During the springof 2007, he taught a course on “The Constitution and Democracy” at Howard UniversityLaw School,and was named the James Nabrit, Jr. Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law.
According to the LDF, Payton demonstrated his brilliance aslead counsel for the University of Michigan, handling twohigh-profile cases in the trial court and in the court of appeals and arguingGratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court. The landmark companion case, Grutterv. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions inhigher education, represented the vindication of a strategy, devised andimplemented over more than six years to support the educational benefits of diversity. In 2010 the National Law Journal named Payton to its list of “The Decade’sMost Influential Lawyers.” The Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awardedhim the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.
Widely considered one of the country’s most skilled membersof the Supreme Court bar, Payton’s enduring legacy will be his commitment to aprinciple articulated by LDF’s founder, Charles Hamilton Houston.
Payton is survived by his wife, Gay McDougall.