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John Payton Posthumously Awarded Degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa by Georgetown School of Law

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On May 20, 2012, Gay J. McDougall served as the 2012 Commencement speaker of Georgetown Law School. As the former United Nations Expert on Minorities, Ms. McDougall spoke to the importance of lawyers in ensuring that American society remains one of justice and equality for all people. As wife of the late, John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a commitment to civil and social rights was a central part of the bond between the two.

"Race has continuously been used to prevent us from seeing each other as peers, as the equal constituent members of what our constitution refers to as 'We the People.' For our democracy to be legitimate, 'We the People' must be a concept that encompasses each and every one of us." - Gay McDougall

Accepting a posthumous honorary degree on her husbands behalf, Ms. McDougall was deeply honored to share with graduates the passion of John Payton noting that "lawyers are uniquely placed and have a responsibility to maintain a direct line between justice and the rule of law."

Below is the text from the citation:

JOHN A. PAYTON
DOCTOR OF LAWS, HONORIS CAUSA

With his remarkable life and career encompassing private practice and service in the government and nonprofit sectors, John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of  the National Association for the advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, defined what it means to be an advocate for justice. While Mr. Payton's death on March 22nd is a loss to our profession, we hope that the Georgetown Law graduates of 2012 and beyond will carry on his legacy, answer his call to service, and learn from his excellent example.

Born in Los Angeles in 1946, John Payton participated fully in the activism of the 1960s. At Pomona College, he helped to found the school's black student association, organized protests, and became involved with minority recruitment. After earning his bachelor's degree in 1973 and working as an admissions officer, he entered Harvard Law School, serving on the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review and assisting with high-profile civil rights cases. These included the defense of a 1960s s NAACP led boycott of segregationist merchants in Mississippi.

After graduating from law school, Mr. Payton served as a law clerk to Judge Cecil  F. Poole of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco before joining the Washington firm , Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale). He chose the firm in order to continue working on NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, the Mississippi boycott case which Wilmer lawyers argued successfully before the Supreme Court. He would go on to lead the firm’s Litigation Department, simultaneously handling commercial matters and some of the most important civil rights cases of our time, earning a reputation as a superb lawyer. He represented those engaged in civil disobedience as part of the Free South Africa Movement, defended the city of Richmond’s minority business program before the Supreme Court in 1989 (Richmond v. Croson), and in 2003, the University of Michigan's use of affirmative action in admissions (Gratz ·v. Bollinger). From 2008 until his death, Mr. Payton answered the call to head the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund -- achieving critical victories in the areas of voting rights and employment discrimination. Notably, he argued and obtained a 9-0 Supreme Court decision in a case involving over 6000 applicant for firefighter positions in Chicago (Lewis v. Chicago).

Whether he was serving as Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia (on leave from Wilmer), President of the District of Columbia Bar, a Master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court, an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown, Harvard and Howard law schools, or on the boards of several organizations, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, John Payton was relentless in pursuing equality for all. In 2010, The National Law Journal named him one of the most influential lawyers of the decade, and that same year, the Washington Bar Association awarded him its Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit. "The legal community has lost a legend," President Obama said in a March 23rd statement. "[W]hile we mourn John's passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms."

In recognition of his extraordinary example as a brilliant and accomplished lawyer committed to justice. Georgetown is privileged to bestow the degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, on John Payton. Mr. Payton is represented here today by his beloved wife, Gay J. McDougall (H'06), who last semester served as Georgetown Law's Robert F. Drinan, S.]., Visiting Professor of Human Rights.