Payton had a long and distinguished legal career. He served as the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1994. Payton was president of the District of Columbia Bar from June 2001 to June 2002.
He passed his considerable legal knowledge to students as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and at the Georgetown Law Center. In early 2007, while teaching at Howard University Law School, he was named the James Nabrit, Jr. Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law.
Payton contributed to civil rights cases, including the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case, where he was lead counsel.
He was a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School.