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President of NAACP Legal Defense Fund to Give UB Law School's Mitchell Lecture

Release Date: October 9, 2009

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Renowned civil rights attorney John A. Payton will speak at the UB Law School's annual Mitchell Lecture.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- John A. Payton, a renowned civil rights attorney and one of the nation's most passionate and determined voices for justice, will give this year's University at Buffalo Law School's Mitchell Lecture at 2 p.m. on Oct. 22 in John Lord O'Brian Hall on UB's North (Amherst) Campus.

Payton, who was appointed president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2008, will speak on "Race, Law and Politics in America: Have We Become a Post-racial Society." The Mitchell Lecture is free and open to the public. It will be held in Room 106 of O'Brian Hall.

"John Payton is one of the most effective civil rights lawyers of our age," said UB Law School Dean Makau W. Mutua, who served as an election observer in South Africa in 1994 with Payton and who invited Payton to be the featured speaker for this year's lecture.

"He follows in the hallowed footsteps of iconic civil rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg," Mutua said. "His commitment to equal justice and democracy makes him a role model for law students and law faculties. We are deeply honored to have him speak at our law school."

The Mitchell Lecture series was endowed in 1950 by a gift from Lavinia A. Mitchell in memory of her husband, James McCormick Mitchell, an 1897 graduate of UB Law. The distinguished speakers who have come to the law school through the lecture series include Justice Robert H. Jackson, Justice James Robertson and Irene Zubaida Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.

Payton's talk will begin with a review of what happened in the United States during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.

"We had 10 years or fewer of a pretty open democracy, certainly for men," said Payton. "Black people participated and were elected to Congress, but with the end of Reconstruction, all black people were disenfranchised. That was dramatic. It happened after a contested presidential election and was unbelievably effective. It was not seen as a national problem.

"Sometimes we act as though progress is in one direction and a straight line -- that it never goes backward," said Payton on the backsliding to racial equality that occurred after Reconstruction. "But things don't always go in just one direction."

Payton will then address the question of whether we have become a "post-racial" society -- whether, as he said, "we are past all of these issues that have plagued us for 200-plus years."

"We have made enormous progress again, and it seems far more lasting and has embedded itself in our national psyche. But there are still serious problems we have to deal with."

Prior to joining the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Payton was a partner with the Washington, D.C., firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP for 20 years. His practice there ranged from complex commercial matters to the most challenging of civil rights matters. He was the lead counsel for the University of Michigan in successfully defending the use of race in the admissions process at its undergraduate college and at its law school. Payton handled these two high-profile cases in the trial court, in the court of appeals and argued Gratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision represented the vindication of a strategy, devised and implemented over more than six years, to build a case to support the educational benefits of diversity, Payton said.

In the City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., Payton unsuccessfully defended the city's set-aside affirmative action plan established to assist minority businesses in receiving city construction contracts. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court narrowly ruled against the city and determined, for the first time, that all government uses of race -- including affirmative action programs -- would be subject to strict scrutiny.

He has filed numerous amicus briefs in the Supreme Court in other civil rights cases. His civil practice has ranged from libel, to representing the American Legacy Foundation in its efforts to see that youth do not become smokers, to partnership matters, to employment matters.

Payton served as president of the District of Columbia Bar from June 2001 to June 2002. He has frequently served as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, the Georgetown University Law Center and Howard University Law School. He is a graduate of Pomoma College and Harvard Law School.

Since its founding in 1887, the University at Buffalo Law School -- the State University of New York system's only law school -- has established an excellent reputation and is widely regarded as a leader in legal education. Its cutting-edge curriculum provides both a strong theoretical foundation and the practical tools graduates need to succeed in a competitive marketplace, wherever they choose to practice. A special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, public service and opportunities for hands-on clinical education makes UB Law unique among the nation's premier public law schools.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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Charles Anzalone
Senior Editor, Law, Social Work and Education
Tel: 716-645-4600
anzalon@buffalo.edu