John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, died late Thursday after a brief illness. He was 65.
Payton was the sixth leader of LDF. During his tenure he guided the organization to notable 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.
“John Payton was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers our nation has ever had and our world has ever known,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “From defending affirmative action to fighting mass incarcerations to protecting voting rights, John defended civil rights gains and won civil rights victories.”
Last spring, The National Law Journal named Payton one of the most influential civil rights attorneys of the last decade. The same year, the Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit, an award to highlight an individual who “recognizes law as an organism for social justice through social engineering.”
Prior to his appointment at LDF, Payton was a partner at the Washington firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, practicing areas of law ranging from complex commercial matters to the most challenging civil rights cases. He was lead counsel for the University of Michigan’s affirmative action case, and he defended the use of race-based measures to address continuing societal problems throughout his practice.
"Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of our dear friend John Payton," President Obama said in a statement. "As president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, John led the organization’s involvement in five Supreme Court cases. A true champion of equality, he 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."
From 1991 to 1994, Payton served as the corporation counsel of the District of Columbia where he later headed the firm's litigation department. From June 2001 to June 2002, he served as president of the District of Columbia Bar, and he has been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, Georgetown Law Center and Howard University School of Law, where he taught a course on "The Constitution and Democracy" in the spring of 2007.
Payton was a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School. He was married to Gay McDougall.
"We will honor his memory by fighting for justice as he did – with passion, precision, and perseverance in the face of great odds," said Jealous.
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