All achievers

Anthony Romero

Executive Director, ACLU

The law has been such a creative force for helping us understand what we should be, not just what we are.

Demetrio and Coralie Romero with their son Anthony in New York City. (Courtesy of Anthony Romero)
Demetrio and Coralie Romero with their son, Anthony.

Anthony Romero was born in New York City, and spent his first years in a public housing project in the borough of the Bronx. His parents, Demetrio and Coralie Romero, had come to New York from the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, where neither had completed high school. Demetrio Romero worked as a houseman at a large Manhattan hotel and was repeatedly turned down for a more lucrative job as a banquet waiter there on the grounds that his English was not good enough, although it was in fact adequate for the job. With the assistance of his union’s attorney, Demetrio filed a grievance and eventually won his case, which led to more lucrative work for him and an improved standard of living for the family. The role the union’s attorney had played in improving the family’s life made a powerful impression on young Anthony, and he decided that he too would become an attorney and fight for the rights of the disenfranchised.

With this change in their fortunes, the Romero family moved to suburban New Jersey, where young Anthony excelled in school and became the first member of his family to earn a diploma. He received a scholarship to Princeton University, completing his undergraduate degree at the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Following Princeton, he was awarded a second scholarship to Stanford Law School.

After graduating from Princeton in 1987, Anthony Romero earned a scholarship to Stanford Law School. (Courtesy of Anthony Romero)
After graduating from Princeton in 1987, Anthony Romero earned a scholarship to Stanford Law School.

After law school, Romero quickly earned a reputation as a gifted attorney with a commitment to the public interest. For nine years, he worked as Program Officer for Civil Rights and Racial Justice at the Ford Foundation — ultimately serving as the foundation’s Global Director for Human Rights and International Cooperation.. In this capacity, he oversaw grants of $100 million a year to human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU was originally founded to combat the abuses of civil liberties that arose during the First World War. In addition to the Union’s first Executive Director, Roger Baldwin, the founders included Helen Keller. In the following decades, the organization championed free speech and the rights of criminal defendants, supported the rights of union members, combated racial segregation and pursued miscarriages of justice such as the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. The ACLU provides legal representation to plaintiffs filing suit against the government, and to criminal defendants whose rights have been violated. It also files “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) briefs addressing specific legal questions in cases where the parties already have direct representation.

In 2001, when the previous executive director of the ACLU stepped down, he recommended Anthony Romero for the job, and in 2001, Romero became the sixth person to head the 80-year-old organization. He is both the first Latino and the first openly gay man to hold this post. As it happened, his first day on the job was September 4, 2001.

Anthony Romero, left, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaks to reporters as Khaled El-Masri, second from left, listens outside Federal Court, after a hearing before the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006, in Richmond, Va. El-Masri wants the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate his lawsuit alleging human rights and due process violations by former CIA director George Tenet and others. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Anthony Romero, left, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaks to reporters as Khaled El-Masri, second from left, listens outside Federal Court, after a hearing before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, November 28, 2006, in Richmond, Virginia. El-Masri wants the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate his lawsuit alleging human rights and due process violations by former CIA Director George Tenet and others. (AP)

One week later, agents of the Al Qaeda terror network crashed airliners into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, as well as the Pentagon, home of the Department of Defense, outside Washington, D.C. The attacks killed thousands of Americans and provoked the administration of President George W. Bush to declare an all-out “war on terror.” Congress quickly passed the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001. A Department of Homeland Security was created, combining existing agencies and adding a new one, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The National Security Administration (NSA) was given expanded powers to conduct surveillance on American citizens without receiving the customary warrants from a criminal court. These powers came to include the monitoring of phone lines and Internet traffic.

Anthony Romero meets with U.S. armed service personnel at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Courtesy of ACLU)
Anthony Romero meets with U.S. armed service personnel at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (ACLU)

When the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime had given Al Qaeda a safe haven, suspected terrorists captured there and elsewhere were transported to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For civil libertarians this was particularly troubling, as the prisoners were offered neither the protections prescribed for prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, nor those afforded criminal defendants under the U.S. Constitution. Instead the Bush administration created a new form of military tribunal to try the suspects, but even these trials were delayed indefinitely in many cases. Some terror suspects were subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, a practice the U.S. had previously regarded as torture. In a practice known as “extraordinary rendition,” foreign nationals detained overseas were in some cases transferred to the custody of other countries, where torture was more permissible, or to CIA “black site” prisons outside of the United States.

For many Americans, these measures appeared to threaten the very liberty the United States was founded to protect. Romero and the ACLU went into action, to ensure that the struggle to preserve America’s freedoms did not end by destroying them. The ACLU filed suits against the NSA’s domestic spying program, and a class-action suit against the demonstrably inaccurate “no-fly” lists of suspected terrorists employed by the TSA.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero speaks to journalists at the U.S. military complex Camp Justice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the pretrial session for accused terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants on charges related to the attacks of September 11, 2001. (© Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters/Corbis)
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero speaks to journalists at the U.S. military complex Camp Justice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the pre-trial session for accused terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants on charges related to the attacks of September 11, 2001. (© Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters/Corbis)

ACLU membership had held steady at around 300,000 for many years before September 11; under Romero’s leadership it quickly grew to 550,000. By 2007, the group’s annual budget was more than twice that of 2001, and its assets ultimately tripled. The ACLU maintains 53 local affiliate offices: three in California, one each in the other 49 states and Puerto Rico. When Romero took office, the local affiliates received $6.5 million annually from the national office; by 2007 that figure had grown to $31 million. Romero assigned a full-time attorney in each state for the first time. This growth enabled the organization to expand its activities on many fronts, including racial justice, religious freedom, privacy rights, reproductive freedom, and gay and lesbian rights. Romero created a new human rights program within the ACLU, and a division dedicated to privacy issues arising from new surveillance technology, including data mining and the collection of genetic data.

Plaintiff Edith Windsor speaks to the media alongside attorney Roberta Kaplan (front center), attorney James Esseks (second from right) and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero (at right), outside the U.S. Supreme Court following oral arguments in Windsor's case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), in Washington D.C. (© Michael Reynolds/EPA/CORBIS)
Plaintiff Edith Windsor speaks to the media alongside attorney Roberta Kaplan, attorney James Esseks and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, outside the U.S. Supreme Court following oral arguments in Windsor’s case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), in Washington D.C. (Michael Reynolds/EPA/CORBIS)

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU gained the release of more than 100,000 pages of government documents relating to torture and other abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. The ACLU mounted a successful court challenge to Section 505 of the Patriot Act, which gave the FBI power to obtain sensitive records without judicial approval, and won its case, forcing the FBI to open the files it had kept on antiwar groups — and on the ACLU itself.

Anthony Romero meets with student delegates of the Academy of Achievement at the 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa.
ACLU Director Anthony Romero with several student delegates during a break in the Academy of Achievement symposium at the Singita Sabi Sands Reserve during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa.

In addition to its ongoing cases with the federal government over surveillance and detention issues, the contemporary ACLU opposes the death penalty, supports same-sex marriage and the right of gay couples to adopt, supports access to birth control and abortion, and opposes government preference for religion over non-religion. The ACLU won a settlement with the federal government in Collins v. United States, securing back pay for gay members of the military discharged under the now-abandoned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It represented same-sex couples in California who sued successfully to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage, and won a historic victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the federal recognition of gay marriages.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presents Anthony Romero with the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement at the 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.
Awards Council member Archbishop Desmond Tutu presents Anthony Romero with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement at the 2009 International Achievement Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.

Under Romero’s leadership, as in earlier times, the ACLU’s commitment to the Bill of Rights has allied it with more conservative figures and causes as well. The ACLU produced a brief in support of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh when the State of Florida seized his private medical records in a drug abuse investigation. The ACLU has also represented the Second Amendment Foundation over a Washington State library system’s attempt to block access to gun-related Internet sites, and has assisted gun owners in recovering firearms confiscated by law enforcement agencies. While the ACLU advocates increased public funding of political campaigns, it also filed an amicus brief in the Citizens United case, supporting unrestricted independent expenditures by corporations and other associations as a form of constitutionally protected political speech.

In 2005, TIME magazine named Anthony Romero one of the “25 Most Influential Hispanic Americans.” He recounted his and the ACLU’s ongoing struggles in his 2007 book In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror.

In recent years, the ACLU has renewed its support for women’s reproductive rights. Anthony Romero spoke at the 2008 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., and received the 2011 Margaret Sanger Award given by Planned Parenthood “to recognize leadership, excellence, and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.”  The ACLU experienced an unprecedented surge of public interest following the 2016 presidential election, receiving $7.2 million in donations in the five days after election day.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2009

Anthony Romero had led the American Civil Liberties Union for only four days when the attacks of September 11, 2001 presented civil libertarians with their greatest challenge in decades. Since then, Romero and the ACLU have waged a continuous struggle in the nation’s courts to ensure that the Constitution does not become a casualty of the war on terror.

A son of Puerto Rican parents, and the first member of his family to graduate from high school, Romero earned law and public policy degrees at Stanford and Princeton. He is the sixth director to lead the ACLU since it was first founded, to combat the abuses of civil liberties that arose during the First World War.

Anthony Romero has presided over the most explosive growth in the group’s history, doubling its national staff and tripling its budget, enabling it to win significant court victories in defense of personal liberties, and restraining the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. He tells the story of this campaign in his book In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror.

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When did you first know what you wanted to do, that you were interested in civil rights, human rights, that this was the field you wanted to get involved in? What led you there?

Keys to success — Passion

Anthony Romero: From when I was a little boy, I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. I don’t know why. There is no attorney in my family.  My father was a waiter and my mother stayed at home and I’m the first of my family to finish high school.  But somehow I always got it in my mind that I would be a lawyer.  Perhaps it was because I was argumentative, because I always spoke my mind, perhaps because I never really understood the rules of the nuns in Catholic school, was always questioning them.  Over time it just kind of stuck with me, that I would be a lawyer.  Later on in life I understood the role the law would play in social justice and that we would be change agents for people. I saw that it could make a real difference in people’s lives, and that’s really where I understood the importance of being an attorney for issues, for causes, for people, for ideals.  So I don’t know, maybe it was in my DNA from the beginning, but I always knew I wanted to be an advocate for change.

Was there anybody who inspired you as a young person?

Keys to success — The American Dream

Anthony Romero: The folks who inspired me the most were my parents.  My father spoke very poor English, finished the fourth grade in Puerto Rico.  My mother speaks great English, but is too shy to speak it.  But yet they always made me believe that I could make a difference, and that I could achieve things that they could not.  And there was nothing that was not attainable for me.  So they gave me enormous love and support and push and drive, and I would not be here today without my mom and my dad.

Coralie and Demetrio Romero, parents of Anthony. (Courtesy of Anthony Romero)
Coralie and Demetrio Romero, parents of Anthony, at home in New York City. (Courtesy of Anthony Romero)

There was a young lawyer, who I never met, who inspired me about the role of lawyers, and he was a lawyer in my father’s labor union.  My father, first, was a janitor at a hotel. He worked at the Warwick Hotel on 54th and Sixth in New York City, and he would help clean up the rooms and vacuum the floors and break down the tables. He wanted to become a waiter, and he applied for a waiter job because a waiter was a promotion, much more money.  And he was initially turned down from the job.  He was told that his English wasn’t good enough, which he didn’t buy, because when he went to become a banquet waiter, as he would say, “Everybody gets chicken. It’s coffee or tea.”  So he thought that the reason they gave him was a ruse.  So he went to a union lawyer — Vito Pitta was his name — who took on my dad’s case and they filed some type of grievance.  I was young.  And my dad got the job, ultimately.  Several years later, almost a decade later, I would work in the same hotel.  I would work there when I was an undergraduate in Princeton, and I would see that the banquet waiters were also immigrants. They were Russians and Greeks and Germans and Italians, and they had thick accents.  But my father was the first Hispanic waiter at the Warwick Hotel.  That one lawyer who took my dad’s case fundamentally changed our lives.  We left the public housing projects in the Bronx.  My father bought a new car, my mother got a new living room set.  We moved out to the suburban part of New Jersey, where life was very different than the public housing projects of the Bronx.  I got to do well in school.  I got my first bicycle.  Just because of this one lawyer’s ability to champion wrong, to make sure that a wrong was made right, our lives fundamentally changed.  And in that one moment, I understood the role that a lawyer could play in people’s lives, and perhaps that was my first inspiration to be a lawyer for doing good.

Anthony Romero took charge of the American Civil Liberties Union in September 2001, and was immediately plunged into controversy. (Courtesy of ACLU)
Anthony Romero took charge of the ACLU in September 2001, and was immediately plunged into controversy.

What did your parents think when you told them what you wanted to do?

Keys to success — Integrity

Anthony Romero: My parents were always supportive. My parents always believed that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I remember when I first told my father I wanted to go to Princeton or Yale, and I chose Princeton, he asked me how much would the tuition cost and I would say, “Twenty-eight thousand dollars, Papi.” And he said, “That’s more than I make in a year!” He didn’t know about financial aid. He didn’t know that I would get loans, he didn’t know that there were scholarships. But my parents were always very supportive. When I said I wanted to do something, they said, “Okay, try.” And they never stopped me, in fact, they always encouraged me. So when I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and I wanted to serve the public interest, they were always very supportive. When I finished law school, and my father asked me what would my first salary be as a full-time attorney, and I told him it would be about $32,000 dollars a year, he smiled at me and he said, “Now I make more money than that.” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m learning how to change the world, Dad.” And he always would be a bit chagrined. My sister is a social worker, and I always worked in the public service sector, and my father always would say, “What did I do wrong? Why did none of these kids go out and make a lot of money?” And we’d always say back to him, “Dad, you did it right. You taught us our values. You taught us to make a difference in the world.” So they were always very supportive and loving.