March 23, 2012 2:08 PM

Legal Community Mourns Death of John Payton, Civil Rights Activist and Longtime Wilmer Partner

Posted by Sara Randazzo

John Payton, a civil rights attorney and leader of the NAACP who helped break the color barrier as one of the first black partners at a major law firm in Washington, D.C., died late Thursday following a brief illness. He was 65.

In reporting on Payton’s death, sibling publication The National Law Journal chronicles his life and achievements. Payton spent nearly three decades of his career at the firm now known as Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale Dorr, at one time serving as head of the firm’s litigation practice, and joined the NAACP as president and director-counsel of its Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2008.

President Barack Obama was among those to pay tribute to Payton in the NLJ story. The president hailed Payton as a “true champion of equality,” adding that “the legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”

Payton’s professional achievements included multiple appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for affirmative action policies in such landmark cases as 1989’s City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., a public contracts challenge, and 2003’s Gratz v. Bollinger, which involved the University of Michigan’s admissions, according to the NLJ. He also devoted a significant amount of time to pro bono work, served as Washington D.C. corporation counsel, was president of the D.C. bar, and acted as an elections monitor during the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

Wilmer partner and former comanaging partner William Perlstein praised Payton’s skills in the courtroom, telling the NLJ that his ability as a “great storyteller” helped him sway juries and judges to his client’s side. “Part of his effectiveness as a trial lawyer and an appellate lawyer was his ability to be able to get to the heart of things,” Perlstein said.

For more on Payton’s life and achievements, read the complete NLJ story here.

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