The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has hired a new legal director.
Utah native John M. Mejia will take over the leadership position formerly held by Darcy Goddard, the organization's executive director, Karen McCreary, confirmed on Tuesday.
Mejia has previously worked at Chicago-based Sidley Austin, in the firm's insurance and financial services group. His specialties there included insurance class action defense, reinsurance litigation, and complex litigation.
"I am excited to serve as Legal Director of the ACLU of Utah," John said. "Throughout my career, public service has been of utmost importance to me, so this is my dream job. I have always believed that the ACLU and the ACLU of Utah serve a vital function of protecting the civil rights of everyone, from the most powerful to the least among us. I look forward to being able to work to advance civil rights here in my hometown of Salt Lake and throughout Utah," Mejia said in a statement.
Mejia graduated from the University of Chicago Law School with honors in 2003. Prior to law school, Mejia attended Brown University, where he also graduated with honors in 1997. He returned to Utah in 2008 to work in U.S. District Court as a law clerk.
"We are thrilled to welcome John to the ACLU of Utah as Legal Director," McCreary said in a statement. "Because he grew up here, John knows and cares about Utah, and his educational and professional background will make him a great fit to lead our growing legal program."
Mejia comes from a family well-accustomed to working in the public domain. His father, Juan Mejia, is a Utah psychologist who is often called upon to testify in court.
During his time as a student at Brown, Mejia served as president of the Latin American Student Organization. Before law school, he worked a stint as a supervisor of intake volunteers at Utah Legal Services with a grant from AmeriCorps.
David Reymann, an attorney at Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in Salt Lake City who also sits on the ACLU's board of directors, said Mejia is a good hire for the organization.
"He brings a wealth of experience to the position and significant familiarity with Utah's federal courts, where many of the ACLU's legal battles are fought," Reymann said. "The ACLU of Utah plays a critical role in safeguarding civil liberties in this state, where they are often under direct assault. I am confident that the ACLU of Utah's legal program will continue this mission under John's stewardship."
U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow also praised Mejia's abilities. The two worked together in Chicago, he said.
Barlow described Mejia as "smart, capable, and committed" and as someone who will "bring an excellent skill set to the job."
Mejia's hiring follows the September resignation of Goddard, 38, who left her position after less than two years to pursue other opportunities.
Goddard pushed forward with several lawsuits on behalf of the ACLU during her tenure as legal director, which started in January 2010. Those included an action against Utah's enforcement-only immigration bill and a challenge to an Ogden ordinance which makes it a crime for members of the Ogden Trece gang to gather in public.
Goddard's sudden departure left colleagues and some clients surprised. Specifics about why she chose to leave the job were never disclosed.
Salt Lake City civil rights attorney Brian Barnard has praised Goddard's work for aggressively pursuing lawsuits something he said Goddard's predecessors at the ACLU of Utah weren't doing with the same intensity.
"I am afraid the Utah ACLU will again fall back to being a social group that just talks and is afraid to file lawsuits when necessary to end problems and seek redress," Barnard told The Salt Lake Tribune late last year.
Goddard, who has declined to speak about her departure from the ACLU, has since taken a position in the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, where she works in civil litigation.
McCreary said Mejia's work will include overseeing lawsuits spearheaded by interim legal director Joe Cohn, who is headed to Pennsylvania. Recent cases involving Utah's ACLU include calling for an independent investigation into the conduct of the Roosevelt Police Department officers who pepper sprayed Haka dancers as well as campaigns to protect the rights of gay and lesbian students.
Kent Morgan, a longtime Salt Lake City attorney who sits on the ACLU's legal panel, said he has met Mejia and is optimistic that the new hire will speak up for the state's minorities and "oppressed" populations.
Although Mejia will be up against a conservative constituency, Mejia's ability to be diplomatic and to seek feedback from those around him will serve him well, Morgan said.
Mejia's credentials include volunteer work. He has taught constitutional law to elementary school children and coached high school mock trial teams.
He is in the process of becoming licensed in Utah and is currently a member of the Illinois bar.