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John Payton, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, has deep roots in Washington. He joined the D.C.-based firm in 1978, leaving temporarily in the early 1990s to serve as the District’s corporation counsel. A former D.C. Bar president, Payton is currently a partner at Wilmer. But come March 2008, he will head north to New York City to lead the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as its director-counsel and president. Payton, known for his civil rights work, says the move was a no-brainer. “The idea that someone like me, who has been very committed to these issues throughout my legal career .�.�. would not be willing to be the head .�.�. it didn’t take very much reflection.” The Legal Defense Fund is the oldest civil rights law advocacy organization in the country. It has had a key role in precedent-setting litigation, notably the landmark 1954 civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Payton served as lead counsel for the University of Michigan when it defended affirmative action admissions before two lower courts and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The Legal Defense Fund also participated in the case, and Payton worked closely with the fund’s current head, Theodore Shaw. Shaw says he will move to a New York law school or law firm once Payton assumes his post. Payton filed the District’s suit against the gun industry in 2000. He also plans to file a brief in the pending Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which challenges the District’s strict gun laws. He has also counted Amtrak and ABC News as clients. Wilmer’s co-managing partner, William Perlstein, says he is sad to see Payton go. “You never like to lose anyone of John’s caliber. .�.�. He’s a unique talent.”
Marisa McQuilken can be contacted at [email protected].

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