John Payton, lead counsel for U-M affirmative action cases, dies at 65
Celebrated civil rights litigator John Payton has died at age 65. He was the lead counsel throughout the university’s landmark case Gratz v. Bollinger, the LSA undergraduate admissions case, argued in 2003 before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Payton was remembered by President Barack Obama as a “personal friend” and “a true champion of equality.”
Payton also led defense of the companion case Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the Law School, through successful arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. U-M President Mary Sue Coleman remembered him as “a gifted attorney and a deeply committed individual.
“John’s dedication to equality was unparalleled, and all of society benefits from his contributions. We will miss his brilliance and his passion, but will feel his impact for generations," Coleman said.
At the time of his death, Payton was serving as the sixth president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he took the helm in 2008.
“John Payton was an extraordinary advocate and litigator on behalf of the civil rights community and others,” said Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, who was U-M vice president and general counsel during the Gratz and Grutter cases. “We were fortunate to have him represent the University of Michigan in our admissions cases. He leaves a legacy that will always be remembered and honored.”
In defense of both Gratz and Grutter, Payton defended the consideration of race in admissions and successfully argued that a diverse student body, including elements of race and ethnicity, is a compelling interest in higher education, and effectively invoked the principal of “critical mass” to help illustrate diversity’s contribution to the educational experience of all students.
“John Payton was a brilliant lawyer, civil rights leader, and colleague who played a critical leading role in U-M’s defense of the educational value of a diverse student body,” said Jonathan Alger, incoming president of James Madison University, who is now senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers University. During Gratz and Grutter, Alger was U-M’s lead assistant general counsel in both cases. “His passion for justice and equal opportunity was heartfelt and contagious, and his commitment was backed up with thoughtful argument and a lifetime of experience. He made a real difference in the world.”
A native Californian and graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, Payton successfully lobbied for increased diversity among the student body and establishment of a black studies program. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he continued as a student to work on major civil rights issues, including defense of participants in the American Indian Movement.
In appreciation of its pro bono work for the NAACP in Mississippi, Payton joined the Washington, D.C., firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, where he rose to partner. He also served as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia from 1991–94, and helped shepherd South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic elections in 1994. The National Law Journal named Payton one of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers” in 2010.
Nine days before Obama won the U.S. presidency, Payton delivered U-M’s 2008 Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lecture, during which he shared this thought, “Democracy at its core requires that ‘all the people’ be included in ‘we the people. ’ That doesn't mean we have to see each other as the same. We must understand that our differences enrich our collective perspectives.”