Attorney Fay Clayton has spent much of her 26-year career championing society’s victims. Working pro bono for organizations such as NOW and the ACLU, she has successfully defended her clients against race discrimination, sexual discrimination, and helped secure their religious freedom.
Fay Clayton was raised on a farm in rural New Jersey and could drive a tractor by the time she was six. The oldest of five children, she had a great deal of responsibility and many chores. But she says the hard work was good for her. “It taught me that I liked to be busy and that I could be good at things,” she said.
In 1964, Clayton graduated high school and left New Jersey to attend New College in Sarasota, Fla. At the time, Clayton had no idea she wanted to go into law. In fact, having a career was not her first priority.
“It was a different era then. Women didn’t think of careers quite the way they do now. I really wanted to have a family,” she said.
Clayton married in 1965. Her husband was in the Air Force. Shortly after her graduation in 1967, her husband was transferred to Ankara, Turkey.
In Turkey, Clayton took a job as the secretary to the principal of the American School. Not long afterward, she discovered she was pregnant. When she told her bosses, she was immediately fired.
“Just because I was pregnant. And that was so discriminatory and so awful…but there was a lot of discrimination in those days.”
The discriminatory status quo stuck in Clayton’s craw and would be an impetus behind her decision to become an attorney.
In 1974, Clayton was again living in the U.S. where two landmark Supreme Court cases were making headlines. One, Roe v. Wade, gave women the right to have legal abortions. The other, Cleveland Board of Education v. LeFleur, barred federal agencies from firing women simply because they were pregnant.
She said, “And that one really meant a lot to me, so I thought maybe I should find out what that’s all about.”
But by then, Clayton was a working mom with three children: Kim, Pepper and Scott. Nevertheless she enrolled in night classes at Chicago-Kent Law School and graduated with the highest average in the school’s history. Motivated by a desire to take on civil rights cases, she took a job at a high-powered corporate law firm.
“I learned early on that to get the most interesting civil rights cases you should take a job at a corporate law firm that does volunteer work for organizations like the ACLU and NAACP. At these big firms you really have an opportunity to make a difference,” she said.
In 1979, Clayton did make a difference, a big one, with a case for the ACLU called Jane Doe v. the City of Chicago. Her victory ended a 25-year Chicago police department policy of illegally strip-searching female arrestees on minor charges. The injunction was upheld in police departments nationwide.
In 1986 Clayton took on her most famous case to date - National Organization for Women v. Scheidler, which aimed to stop anti-abortion protestors from blocking abortion clinics and threatening patients. It was Clayton’s idea to bring the lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), usually used to prosecute organized crime figures. In 1994 she argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and, in a 9-0 decision, emerged victorious.
“I felt that all the women of America were counting on us,” Clayton said at the time. “I didn’t want to let them down. It was a fabulous verdict.”
But the verdict did not end the battle for Clayton, professionally or personally. The case continues to be argued and appealed today, and Clayton, as lead counsel, remains the target of many angry anti-abortionists. Despite a deluge of hate mail and threats to her personal safety, Clayton fights on.
“Some people say I’m obsessed. But I am simply not willing to sit back and watch this erosion of women’s rights. I am determined to win this battle.”
In 1989, Clayton became a founding partner in her own law firm, Robinson, Curley and Clayton. Not surprisingly, her firm does a great deal of pro bono work for NOW, the NAACP and the gay and lesbian rights group, LAMBDA, to name a few. Her leadership has been recognized by many civil rights organizations and her alma mater has established a moot court award in her name. Even Clayton’s own hero and former professor, federal judge Prentice H. Marshall, calls her one of the few “great lawyers” to appear before him.
But perhaps the most important goal that Clayton has realized is the one she set for herself, to “help people get justice.” Ask any of her clients or the many thousands, perhaps millions, of people who her court victories have impacted, and they would likely tell you that Clayton has done just that.
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Schachner Chanen, Jill, "A Trial Twelve Years in the Making," AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION JOURNAL, June 1998, p.38.
Houlihan-Skilton, Mary, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, April 21, 1998, p. 2.
Johnson, Dirk, "Anti-Abortionists Lose Suit Under Racketeering Statute," THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 1998.
Author Unknown, "Fay Clayton," biography for American Jewish Congress Dinstinguished Leadership Award Dinner, January 1997.