NEW YORK–Memorial services were still pending for John A. Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and tireless advocate for justice, equality and opportunity. Payton died late Thursday at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore after a brief illness. He was 65.
Payton was the seventh leader of LDF, the nation’s first and preeminent civil rights law firm.
During his tenure, he guided the organization to resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, which vindicated the rights of more than 6,000 applicants who sought to become firefighters in the city of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Payton was revered as fearless, a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all voices.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and his wife were saddened to learn that their “dear friend” had died. He called Payton “a true champion of equality” who “helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box. 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.”
Obama said Payton will be remembered for “his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”
A native of Los Angeles and a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, Payton forged a brilliant career as a corporate attorney at the firm of Wilmer Hale where he headed the firm’s litigation department. But he also always exercised a deep commitment to public service through his pro bono work at the firm. He took leave from Wilmer during the early 1990s to serve as the corporation counsel of the District of Columbia. He was president of the District of Columbia Bar from 2001 to 2002, a member of the American Law Institute, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and a Master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court. He was also affiliated with a number of civil rights and human rights organizations.
Payton 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, and was named the James Nabrit, Jr. Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law.
According to the Legal Defense Fund, Payton demonstrated his brilliance as lead counsel for the University of Michigan, handling two high-profile cases in the trial court and in the court of appeals and arguing Gratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court. The landmark companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education, represented the vindication of a strategy, devised and implemented 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’s Most Influential Lawyers.” The Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.
Widely considered one of the country’s most skilled members of the Supreme Court bar, Payton’s enduring legacy will be his commitment to a principle articulated by LDF’s founder, Charles Hamilton Houston.
Payton is survived by his wife, Gay McDougall; two sisters, Janette Oliver of Portland, Ore., and Susan Grissom of Atlanta, Ga., and a brother, Glenn Spears of Los Angeles.