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John Payton Biography



Attorney John Payton has defended some of the most important civil rights cases in the United States in recent years. He has also served on several professional boards and committees. According to a profile from Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, the prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm where Payton is a partner, he "has been recognized as one of the premier litigators in the country and has handled complex civil matters from the trial court to the United States Supreme Court."

Payton was born on December 27, 1946. Growing up in Los Angeles, he thought at first of pursuing a career in science. But once he arrived at Pomona College, he recalled in an interview on the D.C. Bar Website, he was quickly attracted to the social activism that was prevalent on campuses during the 1960s. "Everybody was worried about the draft and the Vietnam war," he observed. "We were all worried about civil rights and issues of equality and justice." Payton became a leader on campus, co-founding the Black Student Association and organizing protest events. "During those years," he added, "I became interested in pursuing something that would have the possibility of helping to create social change, and that was how I became interested in becoming a lawyer."

After graduating from Pomona in 1973, he took a job as an admissions officer at the Claremont Colleges, of which Pomona is a member school. He had helped to create this position, the black admissions office, and held this post for three years. He then traveled to West Africa for a year on a Watson fellowship, studying West Africa literature—an experience he described as "fabulous." Upon returning from Africa, he attended Harvard Law School.

During his first year at Harvard, Payton joined a group of students who wrote briefs for a civil rights lawyer. Among these projects were defenses for activists charged with crimes related to the events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) had engaged in armed conflict with federal marshals in 1973. AIM activists took over the reservation town of Wounded Knee on February 27 to protest the government's Indian policy. A siege ensued which led to two Indian deaths and the wounding of a U.S. marshal before AIM surrendered on May 8. Wounded Knee became one of the most high-profile civil rights cases of the 1970s. Payton also started working on a case that had been brought by white merchants in Mississippi against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1966. This case, which Payton continued to work on for years after completing law school, was eventually decided in the NAACP's favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to working on briefs as a student, Payton also served as comments editor for the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. "There was always some part of my legal education where I was involved with civil rights," he noted in D.C. Bar. After earning his law degree from Harvard in 1977, Payton served as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Cecil Poole in San Francisco.

Upon completing his clerkship, Payton moved to Washington, D.C., in hopes of finding a job that matched his interest in social change. Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering (now Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr), a firm that was then working on the NAACP case, hired him as a general litigator. He handled a broad range of cases, and did pro bono work (that is, worked without payment) on a case that challenged discrimination in the construction industry.

In 1991 Payton left the firm to become corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. In this position, he supervised all the legal business of the District and represented it in any lawsuits. During his three years in this job, he also streamlined management to create an office "that could operate in a much more professional and engaged way," as he commented in D.C. Bar.

Payton attracted national attention in 1993 when he became President Bill Clinton's top choice to head the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. But Clinton did not officially nominate him because of objections from the Congressional Black Caucus. They cited Payton's lack of knowledge about a major Supreme Court voting rights decision, as well as the fact that Payton was unregistered to vote from 1984 until October of 1988 and did not vote in the 1990 D.C. election, as reasons against his candidacy. "It was a mistake not to vote," he said in an interview quoted in the Washington Post. "I wish I had voted.… People did sacrifice to get that right. I should have voted." Though some prominent African Americans supported Payton, many black lawmakers were shocked and disappointed by his poor voting record. Acknowledging the lack of political support for his nomination, Payton withdrew his name for consideration on December 17.

Payton left the corporation counsel job in 1994. He then accompanied his wife, attorney Gay McDougall, to South Africa, where she had been appointed to the Independent Electoral Commission in charge of supervising the 1994 election that made Nelson Mandela the country's first post-apartheid president. Payton became part of the international team of observers to ensure an honest election. Upon returning to Washington later that year, he went back to his litigation practice at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr.

From 1998 to 2000, Payton headed the firm's litigation practice. He has worked on several recent landmark cases, most notably the controversial lawsuit challenging affirmative action admissions practices at the University of Michigan. Payton led the legal team that defended the university in its use of race-based admissions criteria in its undergraduate school and its law school. He successfully defended the undergraduate case, Gratz, et al. v. Bollinger, before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The decision was hailed as a huge victory for advocates of affirmative action. As Payton said in remarks quoted in the University of Michigan Record, "All selective higher education institutions will be affected" by this result.

Payton also headed the legal team representing the American Legacy Foundation, which was formed in the aftermath of states' lawsuits against the tobacco industry and which in 2004 was embroiled in a lawsuit about truthful advertising of tobacco products (American Legacy Foundation v. Lorillard Tobacco Co.). He also directed the defense of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) in a major class-action suit.

From June of 2001 to June of 2002, Payton served as President of the District of Columbia Bar. He has been active in many professional organizations, including the American Bar Association, where he is a member of the Council of the Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities and of the Commission on Immigration Policy. He is also a board member of the International Human Rights Law Group and is the vice chair of the D.C. Public Defender Service.

At a Glance …

Born December 27, 1946; married Gay McDougall, a lawyer, in 1991. Education: Pomona College, BA, 1973; Harvard University, JD, 1977.

Career: U.S. District Court, San Francisco, CA, law clerk to Judge Cecil Poole, 1977-78; Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering (now known as Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr) Washington, D.C, general litigator, 1978-91, partner, 1994–; District of Columbia, corporation counsel, 1991-94.

Memberships: D.C. Bar, president, 2001-2002; American Bar Association; American Law Institute; National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; International Human Rights Law Group; D.C. Appleseed Center; D.C. Public Defender Service; People for the American Way.

Addresses: Office—Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, 2445 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20037.



Washington Post, November 5, 1993, p. A10; November 6, 1993, p. A11; December 18, 1993, p. A1.


"A Conversation with D.C. Bar President John Payton," D.C. Bar, www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/washington_lawyer/june_2001/payton.cfm June, 2001 (September 14, 2004).

"John Payton," William Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, http://www.wilmerhale.com/john_payton (September 14, 2004).

"The Legal Team: John Payton," The University Record Online, www.umich.edu/~urecord/0203/June16_03/07_payton.shtml (accessed September 14, 2004).

—E. Shostak

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