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Noted Civil Rights Attorney John Payton Named to Pomona College Board of Trustees

Noted civil rights attorney John Payton, who served as lead counsel for the University of Michigan in two recent landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning diversity in higher education, was elected to the Pomona College Board of Trustees in September.

A native of Los Angeles, Payton graduated from Pomona College in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics. As a student, he was a founder of the Black Student Union and co-founder of the Black Studies Center. In addition, he was a member of the Nu Alpha Phi fraternity and participated in intramural sports. A Pomona College Scholar, he was a recipient of the prestigious Watson Fellowship for study in West Africa.

Following his graduation from Pomona, Payton earned his law degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School and clerked for U.S. District Judge Cecil F. Poole, Northern District of California.

A partner with the firm Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington, D.C., he came to the University of Michigan lawsuits with a history of work on other civil rights cases, including leadership roles in the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Southern Africa Legal Support and Legal Education Project, and the Free South Africa movement, for which he served as chief counsel. He is also a past president of the District of Columbia Bar Association, and widely considered to be one of the nation's leading civil rights attorneys.

In one of the University of Michigan cases decided in the summer of 2003, the Supreme Court rejected the university's undergraduate admissions policy, in which race was considered according to a formulaic point system. In the second case, the court upheld the more individualized race-conscious admissions policy of the university's law school, affirming that race can be considered as one of many factors in admissions. Payton led the argument on behalf of the university in both cases.

“The Michigan cases have provoked a hard look at our society, particularly how racially diverse we are and yet how racially divided we remain,” Payton said recently. “The University of Michigan cases focused on how important it is for institutions of higher education to confront these realities, but they also pointed out how much remains to be done with respect to race in our society.”

Payton, who came of age in the 1960s, says that many members of his generation share a common attitude: “It’s that we didn’t go to college thinking just about the jobs we were going to have when we got out. For many of us, it was a time of activism; we thought we could make the world better, and a lot of us wanted to make sure that that’s what we did with our careers. It’s been enormously rewarding to me to have been in a place where I have had a chance to help do those things.”

A resident of Washington, DC, Payton is married to Gay McDougall, who is the executive director of Global Rights: Partners for Justice, formerly the International Human Rights Law Group.

Pomona College, located in Claremont, CA, is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of student research and involvement opportunities.