Tomorrow night, April 18, Legal Aid will recognize John Payton (posthumously) and Paul M. Smith with its highest honor, the Servant of Justice Award. Both honorees made the struggle for equal justice part of their personal and professional identities through their commitment to and concern for the individuals, communities, and causes for which they have fought. If you do not already have plans to do so, please consider joining us for the dinner at the JW Marriott.
The night will be special. Gay McDougall, John Payton’s widow, will be in South Africa at the time of the dinner but has prepared a videotaped acceptance. Elaine R. Jones will be accepting the award in person. The Honorable Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., will be presenting the Servant of Justice Award to Paul Smith. John Payton and Paul Smith are truly deserving of Legal Aid’s Servant of Justice Award.
John Payton was the 6th leader of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., the nation’s first and preeminent civil rights law firm and a tireless advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity. During his tenure, he guided the organization to resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, which vindicated the rights of over 6,000 applicants who sought to become firefighters in the City of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A native of Los Angeles and a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, Mr. Payton forged a career as a corporate attorney at WilmerHale, where he headed the firm’s Litigation Department. He took leave from the firm during the early 1990s to serve as the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia. Mr. Payton became lead counsel for the University of Michigan, handling two high-profile cases in the trial court and in the court of appeals and arguing Gratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court. The landmark companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education, represented the vindication of a strategy, devised and implemented over more than six years, to support the educational benefits of diversity. In 2010, the National Law Journal named Mr. Payton to its list of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers.”
Mr. Payton’s early death was a profound loss for the equal access to justice movement. As President Obama noted at the time of his death, Mr. Payton was a “true champion of equality.”
Paul M. Smith is a partner in the D.C. office of Jenner & Block LLP, where he has maintained an active appellate and First Amendment practice for many years, going back to Reno v. ACLU, the challenge to the Communications Decency Act in the mid-1990s. More recently, he has been involved in a number of closely watched cases involving the application of copyright law to the Internet and other new methods of content distribution, including Viacom v. YouTube, Columbia Pictures v. Fung, and WNET v. Aereo.
Mr. Smith has also handled many high profile pro bono and public interest cases. In addition to arguing the landmark gay rights case Lawrence v. Texas, he was one of the lawyers who brought the first major challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act in Gill v. OPM. Mr. Smith has also tried and argued a number of important voting rights and election law cases, including Vieth v. Jubelirer, a Pennsylvania partisan gerrymandering case, LULAC v. Perry, a Texas redistricting case, and Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a challenges to Indiana’s voter ID law.
Mr. Smith graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College and received his J.D. from Yale Law School, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal. He formerly served for six years on the D.C. Bar Board of Governors and for seven years on the Board of Directors of Lambda Legal, including two years as Co-chair of that board. In 2003, the Human Rights Campaign gave Mr. Smith its Equality Award. In 2009, he received the Champion of Freedom Award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In 2010, the National Law Journal named him one of the 40 Most Influential Lawyers of the Past Decade.