John Payton, a lawyer and civil rights advocate who argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court involving discrimination in the workplace and the rights of universities to include race as a factor in admissions, died March 22 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 65.
He had complications from multiple myeloma, said his wife, Gay McDougall, a civil and human rights activist.
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.
Thomas Williamson Jr., a lawyer at the Washington firm Covington and Burling, told the National Law Journal that Mr. Payton “was an exemplar of somebody who was both conscious and imaginative about how you can use the resources of a large law firm to advance the interests of justice and to protect the most needy and vulnerable people in our society.”
John Adolphus Payton was born Dec. 27, 1946, in Los Angeles. His father was a real estate broker, and his mother a teacher. He graduated from Pomona College in 1973.
As D.C. corporation counsel from 1991 to 1994, Mr. Payton oversaw cases involving the District and prosecuted juvenile criminal cases and adult misdemeanor cases.
In 1993, he was briefly considered by the Clinton administration to serve as U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. Mr. Payton withdrew his name after he encountered opposition from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Among other issues, Mr. Payton said he had not voted for more than decade.
“You can’t really reconcile years of marching, demonstrating and deaths to support someone who has not demonstrated civic responsibility in exercising the right to vote,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a member of the caucus, said at the time.
Mr. Payton told The Washington Post he regretted not voting. “It’s more than embarrassing,” he said in 1993. “People did sacrifice to get that right. I should have voted. I have no excuse.”
With his wife, Gay McDougall, Mr. Payton served as an election monitor in South Africa in 1994 when blacks could vote for the first time. Nelson Mandela became the president.
Mr. Payton’s first marriage, to Brenda Payton, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Gay McDougall of New York and Washington; two sisters; and a half-brother.
“The problems of race and inequality in our country have proven to be enduring and deep-seated in nature,” Mr. Payton told the Civil Rights Monitor, a publication of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in 2008. “But we must recognize that this is a marathon and not a race if we are to find solutions that will work. ”