John Payton, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and a tireless advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity, died March 22, 2012 after a brief illness. He was 65. LDF is deeply saddened and mourns this tragic loss.
John was the 6th 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 over 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. To the LDF staff and to a great many others, John was fearless – a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all of our voices. LDF extends its deepest condolences to John’s wife, Gay McDougall, and would like to express its gratitude to her for sharing John with us.
A native of Los Angeles and a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, John 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.
John demonstrated his signature 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 John 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, John Payton’s enduring legacy will be his commitment to a principle articulated by LDF’s founder, Charles Hamilton Houston. “What I am more concerned about,” Houston said, “is that the Negro shall not be content simply with demanding an equal share in the existing system. It seems to me that his historical challenge is to make sure that the system [that] shall survive in the United States of America shall be a system which guarantees justice and freedom for everyone.”
LDF’s work will go on, in just the way that John would have wanted.