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Congressional Black Caucus: The Trayvon Martin Case and Justice and Mourning the Passing of John Payton

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. NORTON. Well, I thank the gentlelady for yielding. I did not know of the Emancipation Day of the Virgin Islands. I reciprocate and want to know more about the Virgin Islands' Emancipation Day. I want to thank the gentlelady from the Virgin Islands who handles these Special Orders for the Congressional Black Caucus on the floor, for the time and effort you have given this evening.

I want to thank my colleagues who have come down so far for this hour. You've just heard from my good friend, the Congresswoman from Texas (Ms. Jackson Lee). I thank her for her remarks, and I thank her, as well, for mentioning Emancipation Day here in the District of Columbia, where thousands of residents marched down Pennsylvania Avenue today to claim the rights that every constituent of every Member who pays taxes in the United States already enjoys. I know that I speak for the District when I thank all of you.

And when I say that John Payton was a very, very devoted Washingtonian who would have particularly appreciated Emancipation Day today, I thank Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whose words always are important to hear as she probes the issues of the hour, and especially what she had to say tonight about John Payton. My condolences, first, to my good friend, Gay McDougall, John's wife, and to his siblings and his family. A memorial service was held today, so it's fitting that we should be able to get this hour to say a few words in tribute. I would like to devote my words to both the man and the lawyer. John was my constituent and my friend. It's important to get a feel for the man.

If I may inquire how much time we have remaining in this hour?


Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, there have been only six leaders of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund since Thurgood Marshall first went on the bench. You can imagine what quality of lawyer it takes to fill the role that Thurgood Marshall had at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

John Payton was worthy of the role, worthy to become the sixth leader of the Legal Defense Fund.

If one looks at John's professional credentials, you would have thought that's enough of a life for a man, considering particularly that he is an African American who went to college and law school when blacks were only beginning to be admitted to the best colleges and law schools in the country. Before his life was over--much too early--John had been listed on this decade's list of most distinguished lawyers in our country. He had been president of the District of Columbia Bar.

John's life and work, of course, are etched in important Supreme Court cases. However, we, in the District of Columbia, feel especially the loss of John Payton because John Payton was--what was called Corporation Counsel is now called Attorney General of the District of Columbia. He took that post when he was asked by the Mayor to leave private practice in order to become the lead lawyer in the District of Columbia.

To understand John, though, one has to see how this extraordinary man melded his love of the law--including private practice--with the love of his professional life, civil rights. It's clear that John laid down an early marker for what his life would become, that it would be a life dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination.

John went to Pomona College in 1965 when these colleges were just admitting talented African Americans. He found himself at an elite private college surrounded only by people who were not at all like him--they were like him in many ways, but certainly not from his racial background. There were very few African Americans in his college and in the five colleges in Claremont, California, that group of very fine private colleges. So, John began early, right in college, to lobby the administration to recruit more African American students. And of course he wanted a black studies program because he saw that perhaps one of the reasons that there was so little interest in black students is there was too little appreciation for the role of African Americans in our history, so he lobbied for that too.

He pressed the admissions people to in fact recruit more African Americans. And he lobbied so hard the college asked him to take the job. So John, after he insisted that more African Americans be recruited, took the job himself and delayed going to law school. That was John Payton.

He went on to Harvard Law School, but he couldn't leave behind his dedication to human rights. He got involved in the very famous--infamous, one might say--school busing controversy in Boston. While he was a law student, he found himself taking affidavits from black students who were injured because of racial violence in Boston.

In law school, he joined the editorial board of the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. You see the theme developing in John's life. Of course, many students have these themes, and we're pleased that they have them when they do, but there's nothing that says you've got to devote your life to any particular cause, and particularly if you're an African American and experiencing the first opportunities to, for example, join private law firms.

John did just that. He went on to practice corporate law here in Washington, D.C. at a prestigious law firm when it was rare for blacks to practice privately at elite law firms. He moved up to head litigation in his law firm. And then he did something that describes how John Payton put together all of the ingredients of the life of a man of the law: he took leave from the law firm to become Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia. He recognized that he had been taking civil rights cases as a private lawyer pro bono, and, yes, he could come and serve his city as the lead counsel.

He met his wife, an Africa expert, interestingly enough, when he was monitoring elections in South Africa. And that was, as my good friend from Texas has said, a meeting that was made in heaven, perhaps--and she did not say it that way, I say it that way--because it's one of those wonderful marriages which bring together people of like heart and like mind.

John, of course, will be remembered for his work in many ways at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. For example, John continued to take the Legal Defense Fund along the road it had traveled so well as lead law firm and lead litigator for civil rights in our country; but he recognized that the Legal Defense Fund had already won many of the most important cases and that, therefore, the fund had to stay relevant, stay current. To quote him, when asked about whether he thought the problems of African Americans could be solved through litigation, he said:

I'd say we have a litigation focus, and some of our focus is not litigation. With some things, you want to achieve a solution without filing a lawsuit. You can go to the relevant entities, a school board or mayor, and suggest a solution without having to file a lawsuit.

Here is a man who brought from private practice problem-solving of many varieties, just the man for the Legal Defense Fund in this era.

Of course, John Payton will be remembered for cases of great importance. Sometimes the case needed a lawyer with such a fine technical sense of the law that all of the civil rights, issues revolved around whether you could find a lawyer whose mind was fine enough to tackle such an issue.

Lewis v. City of Chicago was such a case where African American firefighters filed a lawsuit charging discrimination by the city against African American firefighters. The city conceded that it had given an examination which had a disparate effect on minorities in violation of Supreme Court cases, but it argued a statute of limitations issue, that therefore John Payton and his African American plaintiffs could not continue.

It took a lawyer--a lawyer's lawyer--to take that case, argue that statute of limitations issue, go before the Supreme Court and get this Supreme Court to unanimously reverse the lower court, which had found that the statute of limitations voided the case.

Today, one of the core sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under attack. If that law goes down, we will be set back 50 years. It's the core provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires States which have engaged in intentional voting discrimination in the past to bring all of their voting laws--laws that impact voting rights--so that they can be pre-cleared by the Justice Department before they go into effect.

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility v. Holder was such a case, 8 1 decision upholding section 5.

It is impossible to overemphasize how important John Payton's victory was in sustaining this core provision of the Voting Rights Act. He did it and won a great victory for civil rights.

John Payton also was lead counsel in a case that is still very much discussed, a case, like a similar case that is going before the Supreme Court this very year. I'm speaking of the University of Michigan case, where the plaintiff sought to eliminate affirmative action in higher education, in both law and undergraduate schools. There was great trepidation that much of the progress that had been made over 25 years would end prematurely.

John handled these cases in the lower courts and argued the cases at the Supreme Court as well. The Court upheld the use of race as a factor, one factor, not the only factor, and affirmative action in higher education was saved.

I also would like to submit for the Record a piece written by a colleague and friend of John Payton, Joshua Wyner, W-Y-N-E-R. Joshua Wyner wrote a short piece after John Payton died which details one occasion that summarizes the principled nature of John's life. He was on the board of an organization called Appleseed, which does good works for the District of Columbia.

The District of Columbia had a financial control board during a period when the city was going through a financial crisis. The control board took control of the D.C. Board of Education.

The D.C. Board of Education had a terrible reputation. Its members engaged in infighting in order to keep half-empty schools open, for example, and all agreed the Board had done little for education in the District of Columbia.

Mr. Speaker, how much time is remaining? I want to leave some time for my colleague.


Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, the control board reached out to take control of the board of education. It had control of virtually every other arm of the D.C. government.

But John Payton and the board of Appleseed knew that the law which set up the control board gave it no authority to take over the board of education. It was an elected body. What to do?

Appleseed very much opposed the board of education. Yet, the control board had done an illegal act, except nobody knew it but technical lawyers or people who paid attention to the fine letter of the law.

The Appleseed board engaged in the appropriate debate as to whether it should sue the control board for illegal action in taking over the board of education. John Payton cast the deciding vote for the lawsuit, and he did so because, he said, he did not want to be part of an organization that failed to stand for the rule of law.

Note how John Payton handled this dilemma. He knew that the board of education didn't stand by the children. What he did, as a member of the Appleseed board, was to settle the case, ultimately returning power to the school board, and then went to work restructuring school governance, giving governance to the Mayor and eliminating the board of education.

So you see what John did. He stood for principle on both occasions. He found a principled way to keep the control board from exceeding its authority, illegally, and he found a principled way to eliminate the D.C. school board without using illegal means.

That is the principled life that John Payton lived. That is why he has left a vacuum in this city where he lived and in the law which he loved.

He said he never regretted leaving corporate law. Remember, while he practiced it, he was also doing pro bono cases for civil rights. But he never regretted leaving private practice, he said, because the best possible job for a man like John Payton was the job he had when he died.

John Payton said, on the 70th anniversary of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, when everybody was joyful, as well they might have been, for there is no organization that has done more for human rights in our country than the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). While celebrating the LDF John Payton, its president, its director counsel, said, It's a mistake to celebrate too much about things accomplished when we see that some of the progress has been very uneven.

John was a man of great balance. He understood that, as he said, that African Americans had made extraordinary progress in the 70 years since the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was established, but that what had led him to civil rights in the first place continued and must continue to drive us.

The best way that we can remember our friend, his work, and the man himself is to understand that what he would want us to do is to find a way to help complete the work he was about at the end of his life. His inspiration to young lawyers, his inspiration well beyond the law was so significant that I say to my good friend from the Virgin Islands that I believe that we will have no hesitation, we will find no hesitation in the larger community in seeking to do all we can to continue the work that was the center of the life of John Payton.

We celebrate that extraordinary life today. We celebrate a great life in American law. We celebrate a great Washingtonian. We celebrate all that John did and was as a man. We mourn his early passing. We celebrate and are grateful that in the time given to him he accomplished so very much.
[From the Washington Post, Mar. 30, 2012]
John Payton's Life of Principle

(By Joshua Wyner)
John Payton, who died March 22, was a great friend not only to our nation but also to the place he called home the District of Columbia. To his local and national work, John brought an incredible combination of brilliant thought, deep commitment to principle and unswerving dedication to improving the lives of those who most needed help.

Everyone who loves Washington should take a moment to observe this tremendous loss and remember a great man.

I met John in late 1995, when he and the other four members of the original D.C. Appleseed Center board hired me as executive director of the nonprofit, which works to solve pressing problems facing the city. At the end of Appleseed's first full and quite successful year, the organization faced an enormous dilemma--one that could have sent the organization down the wrong path.

The triggering event took place in November 1996, when the congressionally created financial control board took over the District's public school system.

With fiscal management of the city improving, everyone committed to bettering the city knew that ground zero for reform had to be the District of Columbia Public Schools, where few kids received the education they needed to succeed in life. There was no evidence that the D.C. Board--of Education which was better known for fighting to keep open half-empty school buildings in members' wards than for acting to improve curriculum or teaching--could attract, hire or retain a superintendent who could lead needed reforms.

Yet the control board's takeover was almost certainly illegal. The structure of the school board was written into the city charter, which also contains provisions for how the charter itself can be amended. Nothing in the law authorizing the control board allowed it to change the charter.

Appleseed had a choice: Give in to urgency and follow the straightest path to reform or stand for principle and fight an illegal action by an unelected body. After a lengthy debate, the Appleseed board chose--by a single vote--to sue the control board to reverse the takeover. John cast the deciding vote. He knew from his days as D.C. corporation counsel that desperately needed reform almost certainly would not be led by the school board. But he also made emphatically clear that he (I still recall his words) ``would not be part of an organization that failed to stand for the rule of law.''

Appleseed filed suit and eventually settled with the control board, which returned power over the school system to the school board. Then Appleseed began a project to properly change the governance of the schools. Our research and advocacy helped pave the way for the enactment of a law--approved by referendum--to fundamentally restructure school governance, including a sunset clause that ultimately led to the mayor's assuming responsibility for DCPS. In the end, our city benefited more than would have been possible had the control board succeeded, because the structural change that took place ultimately led to improvements in student outcomes that have long outlived the control board.

Originally opposed to the lawsuit, I learned a great lesson from John (and his colleague Alan Morrison, who filed the lawsuit): Successful pathways to needed reforms can and must be grounded in principle.

I had the great privilege of working with John in recent months on a project to improve our nation's community colleges, where so many of the African American students that John cared deeply about are trying to gain the skills they need to succeed in life. As with everything else he worked on, he asked (and helped answer) the tough questions, demanded adherence to principle and pushed toward solutions that would improve the lives of vulnerable Americans.

Our city and nation are much better off for John's time here. His presence will be missed, but it will also endure in the many people whom he showed how to find thoughtful solutions to persistent problems and ground those solutions in principle.


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