When Sallyanne Payton graduated from Stanford Law and went to Washington, D.C., there wasn’t a large Stanford presence. “Stanford was just beginning to play in the big leagues,” she recalls. “When people asked where I was from, and I would say ‘Stanford,’  they would frequently pause and look slightly confused and ask, ‘Is that in Connecticut?’ ”

But that didn’t bother Payton, JD ’68 (BA ’64), the first African-American graduate of Stanford Law School. At a time when there were few women or African-Americans in the legal profession, Payton cut a path for herself to the top, clearing the way for those who followed. Perhaps it was because in choosing to study law when and where she did, she put herself among the brightest of her generation but also in the tight-knit community that is Stanford Law.

Leroy Bobbitt, JD ‘69, Sallyanne Payton, JD ‘68, Dean Jenny Martinez, and Vaughn Williams, JD ‘69, on campus for BLSA lunch, February 2020 (photo by Christine Baker)

“We were a small group of women in our class, and a close group. The percentage of women going to law school in 1965 was about the same as it was in the 1920s! The women’s movement hadn’t really started yet,” recalls Payton’s former law school classmate and friend Anne Bingaman, JD ’68 (BA ’65). “Sallyanne was very smart—many people in our class were. But she had such self-confidence and was so poised. She just shined.”

Payton graduated from law school to a country in upheaval, with a backdrop of protests against the war in Vietnam and demands for civil rights and greater equality at home. She saw the value of her law degree to make a difference and embraced government service. She joined one of the premier law firms in the country and went on to hold appointments in both Republican and Democratic administrations, helping to expand public transportation and infrastructure in Washington, D.C., and rebuild the capital’s burned-out and deteriorating downtown. Later, she was part of the team that crafted what would become the Affordable Care Act. A leading health and administrative law scholar, she had a nearly 40-year career at the University of Michigan Law School (the second woman appointed to the faculty). She was elected a fellow to the National Academy of Public Administration and appointed a senior fellow to the Administrative Conference of the United States and a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, becoming part of  the brain trust supporting the functioning of American government that is sometimes derided by politicians for political gains, but that she believes essential to the smooth running of the country.

Payton describes herself as the product of L.A.’s black middle class, with family, church, and school forming the patterns of her life. Her father was an insurance underwriter for Golden State Mutual, “a black-owned L.A. company.” Her mother was a schoolteacher at Dorsey High, which Payton herself attended. 

“When I was growing up, all of my mother’s friends had master’s degrees, many from USC. They had careers in education and government,” Payton says. “That was the normal career path for educated black women.”

Payton chose to venture away from home to attend Stanford University, where she studied English, was active in student government, and was part of the early study-abroad programs to Italy. “Stanford became another home for me,” Payton says. She was planning a career in teaching and had been accepted to a master’s program at Harvard, when she heard about
Brooksley Born, JD ’64 (BA ’61).

As Payton tells it, the graduating English students were told about Born’s accomplishments in law school, including her rise to editor of the Stanford Law Review. “She aced everything. In the early 1960s, women didn’t do this. You’ve got to imagine the shock,” says Payton. “So the law school asked, ‘Do you have any more like that?’ And the English Department said, ‘Yes, we have plenty.’ And all of a sudden, you had women who were English majors thinking, ‘What about law school?’ And I was one of them.”   

Payton loved studying law and found another home at SLS. “I had undergraduate friends who came with me to law school, so I already knew some people,” she says.

She excelled academically too.

“To the amazement of everyone, including me, I made law review—with blind grading. You could hear the jaws drop all the way down the steps of the law school,” recalls Payton. “My favorite professor said to me, ‘When I turned over the paper and found that you had written it, I nearly had a stroke.’ This was during the time of ‘social Darwinism.’ And I didn’t fit the stereotype.”

“We were a very small class, so very intimate and wonderful. And with so few women, we were conscious of being women. But Sallyanne stood out as a student. She was the most cheerful serious person I knew,” recalls Marilyn Melkonian, JD ’68.

Payton wasn’t sure what area of law to pursue, but Melkonian “suggested that I look for a job in Washington,” she recalls. During firm interviews, Payton was intrigued by an offer from Covington & Burling LLP. “Bill Allen [LLB ’56] recruited me and even flew down to L.A. to spend the evening with my parents to assure them that he would take care of me. And he did.”

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 sparked rioting across the United States and in the nation’s capital. When Payton arrived in D.C., she witnessed the damage and decades of neglect in the downtown. That urban decay became the  focus of much of Payton’s work at Covington, where she handled legal and regulatory matters for major transportation clients and was enlisted by the firm’s partners to work on several pro bono projects involving the Southeast area of Washington, D.C.

“I became familiar with problems of urban decay and the role of community institutions in helping to manage associated challenges of governance,” she says.

In 1971, Payton’s work caught the attention of the Nixon administration and one of her colleagues asked if she would consider working with it. “I had been with Covington for three years and was looking for a change, so I said sure. And shortly thereafter I began getting calls from alarmed friends letting me know the FBI was making inquiries about me. What had I done now, they wanted to know,” she recalls.

Payton soon found herself in a meeting with John Ehrlichman, JD ’51, counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs.

“To everyone’s amazement, their objectives and mine coincided. Nixon wanted Washington to become an international city—a capital city in which the nation could take pride. He wanted to rebuild it before the bicentennial celebration. As Ehrlichman was ticking off what he wanted to do, I matched it with my experience. It was a perfect fit,” she says. “We were both interested in the decentralization of power in D.C. and big projects. Private money wasn’t going to do that, so we needed the government.” She took the job, seeing the potential to make a difference, even if it didn’t match her image. Payton jokes that she let her hair grow into a giant Afro to confuse everyone. But she was eager to dig into the challenge. “The Nixon administration saw the wisdom of giving authority to someone who knew the city at the neighborhood level,” she adds.

Sallyanne Payton, JD ’68, left, with fellow women staff and high-level appointees in the Nixon administration, circa 1969 (photo courtesy of Sallyanne Payton)

Payton joined the administration in April 1971 as staff assistant to the president on the domestic council staff. She was soon also appointed to represent President Nixon on the Commission on the Organization of the District of Columbia, which was laying the groundwork for D.C. “home rule.” Working under the direction of Ehrlichman, she focused on four principal tasks: rebuilding the so-called “riot corridors,” building museums along Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall, opening the D.C. Metro, and obtaining from Congress legislation granting home rule to D.C. “All four of these goals were achieved at least in part,” she says, noting the Home Rule Act, signed by the president in 1973, which provided for an elected mayor and council.

Payton stayed on the White House staff until 1973 when she became chief counsel of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in the Department of Transportation. The high point of her service there, she says, was enactment of the National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974.

“We forget this now, but there were parts of the Nixon administration that were incredibly liberal and progressive. Just look at environment (EPA) and housing. Some of those early progressive steps formed the perennial tool kit for affordable housing in the country,” says Melkonian, a housing expert who founded and led the National Housing Trust and is now the president and founder of Telesis Corporation, which focuses on affordable housing. “We were all looking for ways to make a difference and having Sallyanne’s imprint on those critical issues was important.”

Payton left D.C. near the end of the Ford administration when she was recruited for a faculty position at the University of Michigan Law School in 1976. An L. Bates Lea Professor of Law, she taught administrative law and her scholarship focused on health care, the combination leading her to become an active voice in efforts to reform federal health care financing and regulation.

Payton made her home in Ann Arbor, teaching and mentoring generations of law students. Going there was also a strategic decision.

“I wanted to maintain connections to the public policy community in D.C. The advantage to being in Michigan is that you’re only an hour by air to D.C., so I was in commuting distance the whole time,” she says.

In January 1993, that proved fortuitous when Payton’s work on right-to-die issues came to the attention of the new administration and she was appointed to the Clinton  Health Care Reform Task Force, which continued throughout the first term.

“We were the team that put together what would become the Affordable Care Act later on,” she says, noting the significant challenge that a lack of primary and chronic care in the United States posed and their push for more home care, health and prevention rather than intervention. During this time, Payton was also elected to Stanford University’s board of trustees twice—the first time as a “young alumni under 35” in 1972.

Payton believes passionately in the strength, experience, and intelligence of the people in bureaucratic systems supporting the country’s elected officials. She explains that much of the work at a senior level of the government is very intellectual and conceptual. “Lawyers can also be architects, representing clients who are building institutions. You are an engineer of government. That’s what you do. You are making the government’s systems,” she says. “This goes back to the moon shot, when James Webb [administrator of NASA] created the National Academy of Public Administration in 1967, setting up an organization to foster these big ideas. And they recruited and continue to recruit the best people in the country for that service. Once I found my place on that team I never looked back.”

In retirement, Payton has returned to her family’s home on historic West Adams in Los Angeles where she was raised—a big house recently restored with gleaming stained glass windows and polished mahogany wood.

“It’s glorious. I’m back in my old neighborhood and my old bedroom. And I’m picking lemons off the tree that my grandmother planted,” she says.

She has returned, too, to the church choir of her youth, with many of her friends from the 1960s still there. And she’s still writing, her latest research focused on traditional African-American music, looking at the “Negro spiritual, the backbone of black culture and much of American music,” she says.

“I’ve been singing spirituals since I was a toddler, songs learned from my grandmother. This was the music of my household,” Payton says. She sang in the church choir at Holman Methodist and then took up folk music in college. “My hero was Odetta. But I also reconnected with my family’s St. Louis heritage and enjoy Scott Joplin ragtime now too.”

Payton is hoping to complete her research soon, but as she looks back on her achievements and challenges, she adds, “I will be 77 this year. And this is my last message to my community: Hang in there, the country is turning the corner.” SL