Posted April 26, 2017 9:36 AM
Updated May 1, 2017 10:08 AM

Q&A with ACLU of Illinois’ executive director Colleen Connell

Colleen K. Connell
By Emily Donovan
Law Bulletin staff writer

It hadn’t even been eight hours since Donald Trump had declared victory early on Nov. 9 when the American Civil Liberties Union’s national Twitter account made a promise to the soon-to-be executive: “Should President-elect Donald Trump attempt to implement his unconstitutional campaign promises, we'll see him in court.”

ACLU attorneys’ bite so far seems as bad as its bark. The organization that bills itself as an independent enforcer of the government’s system of checks and balances has filed class-action lawsuits challenging the administration like the Darweesh v. Trump case filed in New York federal court that thwarted the first travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries.

The surge in national interest in the ACLU has had local impact. Its Illinois chapter has tripled its membership since the election, now with more than 50,000 paying members and more than 100,000 on its action alert email list as of mid-March.

That, says the head of the ACLU of Illinois, fills her with awe.

“It deepens the sense of our responsibility for doing this work as well as we can and as much as we can,” said Colleen K. Connell.

Since joining the ACLU of Illinois in 1984, Connell climbed from director of the chapter’s reproductive-rights project to associate legal director to, now, the first female executive director.

The Law Bulletin met with Connell to discuss her career path and what she sees as the path forward for the ACLU of Illinois. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Law Bulletin: You’re from North Dakota. What brought you to Illinois?

Colleen Connell: To quote William Douglas — “Go east young man.” Go east, young woman.

I always assumed I’d go back home and work. I went to the University of Iowa Law School, and all the big Chicago firms interviewed at Iowa. I interviewed at Jenner & Block and I got a job in litigation.

The reason I ended up at the ACLU is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. One of the partners at Jenner, Jeff Colman, was on the ACLU board. He circulated a memo to the associates saying, “Not that I want you to leave, but there are going to be two job openings at the ACLU.”

I’m probably a good example of the value of being open to opportunity. At the time that the ACLU finally offered me the job, I was on a leave of absence from Jenner and teaching at my alma mater. One of my professors had died suddenly and the dean called me and asked if I would be interested in teaching for the semester.

I’m embarrassed to say, when the ACLU offered me the job I wasn’t so sure about it. I loved teaching. They said come for two years. My predecessor said, “You’ll be a better con law teacher if you actually practice for a couple years.”

I came for two, and at this point I’ve stayed for 33.

LB: How has the ACLU changed over time?

CC: The public response to the threat that is Donald Trump has been gratifying and awe-inspiring.

Much of the country really increasingly regards the ACLU as a national resource that has a critically important role to play in protecting both our democratic systems and our individual rights in the courts and, increasingly, in the legislative bodies.

The Bill of Rights isn’t self-enforcing. To quote Lord Acton, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The temptation to abuse governmental power and to restrict individual rights because one group is unpopular, or is a scapegoat or gets in the way of the agenda of those in power is just too tempting.

LB: What advice do you have for other attorneys?

CC: I’m really lucky to do what I do. As I tell young people who come talk to me about their career aspirations, part of it is just being open to opportunities and recognizing that there are just so many different paths to having a meaningful life.

Part of why the ACLU here in Illinois is so successful is because of all the cooperating attorneys in firms across the state who donate their time to work on ACLU cases. There are so many ways as lawyers that we can contribute to making the word a better place and contribute to our community.

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