To attempt to summarize the accomplishments of the late John Payton, former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, would be like using a thimble to "try to empty an ocean," Vernon Jordan Jr., a senior member of the LDF board, said this afternoon at a memorial in Payton's honor.
Jordan was among approximately 1,000 colleagues, friends, family and other mourners who filled a ballroom at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center today to honor Payton, 65, who died March 22 of a brief illness. Speakers heralded Payton's triumphs in court, his commitment to social justice and equality around the world, and the influence he had on hundreds of attorneys over more than three decades as a mentor.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. recalled meeting Payton shortly after the two had graduated from law school in the late 1970s. It was obvious that Payton, who earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1977, “had big plans, bold ideas and limitless potential,” Holder said.
Holder said he would remember Payton not only for arguing some of the “most consequential cases” in recent history – Payton was a respected member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar – but also for his friendship. “I will miss that wise voice. I will miss that counsel,” Holder said, ending his remarks by sharing a letter from President Barack Obama, who called Payton a “courageous champion of equality.”
Payton spent the bulk of his career in private practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr in Washington, where he was an advocate for pro bono service. His Supreme Court work included defending affirmative action policies in several landmark cases, including 2003’s Gratz v. Bollinger, which involved the admissions policies at the University of Michigan.
He was the corporation counsel for the District of Columbia, now known as the attorney general, from 1991 to 1994, and worked to support the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 before returning to the firm. He left Wilmer to take over at the LDF in 2008.
Payton was the “go-to guy” for complex litigation, said Elaine Jones, Payton’s predecessor as director-counsel of the organization. Jones recalled Payton’s early work at Wilmer, where, as a new associate, he assisted with the firm’s representation of the NAACP in Mississippi against a financial court penalty that would have bankrupted the organization.
“John was a person who got the job done,” Jones said. “The advocacy for justice was part of his DNA.”
A letter was read from Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row in Pennsylvania for several decades after he was convicted in the slaying of a Philadelphia police officer. The LDF represented Abu-Jamal, and was part of the team that argued successfully to have the district attorney withdraw the death penalty. In the letter, Abu-Jamal recalled how when he first met Payton, “we met, talked shop and dug each other.” Payton, he wrote, “shows us that a great impact cannot be measured by time.”
Several speakers highlighted the role that Payton and his wife, Gay McDougall, played in the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s. Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke of the Constitutional Court of South Africa recalled meeting Payton and McDougall shortly after he was released from a 10-year jail term as a political prisoner.
Payton and McDougall raised funds to support legal battles in South African courts, Moseneke said, and Payton was on the front lines as an electoral observer during South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Moseneke said that South Africa and many others owe Payton “an endless debt of acknowledgement and gratitude.”
Back in Washington, Free South Africa Movement organizer Cecelie Counts spoke of Payton’s role as a legal advisor to anti-apartheid protesters. At a “frightening time,” Counts said, Payton’s experience and credibility as a Wilmer attorney protected the movement, but she added that Payton was never hesitant to challenge the organizers, too.
More recently, Wilmer counsel Danielle Conley spoke about how Payton was a constant mentor to young attorneys. Conley graduated from Howard Law School in 2003, and said that shortly after joining Wilmer, she realized she had to tell firm leaders about a pro se lawsuit she had brought in District of Columbia Superior Court after her dog was mauled.
She told Payton about the case, and said he surprised her by offering to help, even bringing in another partner at one point to discuss strategy. “He not only had a brilliant legal mind,” Conley said, “he had a huge heart.” She credited Payton with paving the road for other young minority attorneys, saying that “he fought for our recruitment and he fought for our retention.”
Most of the speakers ended their remarks with a call to continue Payton’s work. Longtime Wilmer partner and friend Juanita Crowley, who started at the firm the same day as Payton in 1978, said Payton “did not lay down his work, he bequeathed it to us.”
“To John, may our actions be our thanks,” she said.
National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi. Above, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.