At his death, Mr. Payton was president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights legal organization.
Mr. Payton’s appointment to the fund in 2008 capped a five-decade career devoted to the protection of minorities. During the early 1990s, he was the District’s corporation counsel, or chief legal officer. The position is now called the D.C. attorney general.
In a statement, President Obama called Mr. Payton “a true champion of equality” who will be remembered for his “courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”
While a student at Pomona College in the 1960s, Mr. Payton helped establish the California school’s first black student association. He also successfully lobbied Pomona’s parent institution, the Claremont Colleges consortium, for the creation of a black studies program.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1977, he clerked for a year for Judge Cecil F. Poole of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, before joining the D.C. law firm Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering.
He contributed to the firm’s representation of the NAACP in various legal matters. In a 1982 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., he helped the civil rights organization avoid paying a financial penalty after organizing a 1960s boycott against white merchants in Mississippi.
In 1988, Mr. Payton represented the city of Richmond in a Supreme Court case involving a city program in which 30 percent of municipal construction jobs had to be given to minority-owned businesses. The court ruled that Richmond’s law was unconstitutional because it violated white-owned construction firms’ right to equal protection.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Payton served as the lead counsel for the University of Michigan in two
cases involving its use of race in admissions. One concerned admissions at the undergraduate level and the other at the law school.
The cases were split once they reached the Supreme Court. Mr. Payton led the defense in Gratz v. Bollinger, the 2003 case involving the undergraduate admission policy.
The Supreme Court upheld the law school’s affirmative action process — in which applicants received a more individualized review — and rejected Mr. Payton’s defense of the undergraduate policies, which utilized a point system that was considered unfair by its opponents.
In 2008, Mr. Payton left Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering — now known as WilmerHale — to lead the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Mr. Payton successfully represented a group of black firefighters in a Supreme Court case against the city of Chicago. In that case, the city’s fire department had used test scores for hiring purposes. Because of the way the test was graded, no black applicants had qualified. The court found that the city had discriminated against the black recruits by not using a different system for grading the tests.