Within the last year John Payton, the sixth President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has led the organization’s involvement in five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Two of those cases, in which LDF was either lead counsel or co-counsel, produced critical victories in the areas of voting rights (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder ) and employment discrimination (Lewis v. the City of Chicago ). It was not surprising, then, that given his record of involvement in civil rights cases before taking the LDF post, earlier this spring the National Law Journal named John Payton one of the most influential civil rights attorneys of the last decade and the Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit. This burst of activity by the country’s first and finest civil rights law firm since its founding by Thurgood Marshall describes both its institutional mission and John Payton’s lifelong personal commitment: to be an advocate for justice, equality and a true democracy for everyone.
Prior to his appointment, Mr. Payton had been a partner at the Washington firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr. His practice there ranged from complex commercial matters to the most challenging of civil rights matters. He was the lead counsel for the University of Michigan in successfully defending the use of race in the admissions process at its undergraduate college and at its law school. Mr. Payton handled these two high-profile cases in the trial court, in the court of appeals and argued Gratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's 2003 decision represented the vindication of a strategy, devised and implemented over more than six years, to build a case to support the educational benefits of diversity. Inaddition to the Universityof Michigan cases, he has extensive civil rights experience including defending the use of race-based measures to address continuing problems in our society. In March, Mr. Payton was selected by the National Law Journal as one of the last decade’s most influential lawyers in the area of civil rights.
From 1991 to 1994, Mr. Payton served as the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia. He headed the firm's Litigation Department from 1998 to 2000. Mr. Payton served as president of the District of Columbia Bar from June 2001 to June 2002. Mr. Payton has 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. He is a member of the American Law Institute and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. In addition, he is a Master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court.
Mr. Payton is a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School.