The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has chosen as its new executive director a veteran civil litigator known for managing and trying complex legal cases.
John Gordon, a Minneapolis lawyer who spent four decades at the firm now known as Faegre Baker Daniels, once had thoughts of becoming a journalist, but instead chose the legal profession. He retired from the firm in 2014 and has since been working as a mediator in state and federal court.
"He is a thoughtful person, but when he thinks something is wrong, he is really passionate about it," said his friend Steve Kelley, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "Sometimes, legal training emphasizes your head over your heart. I think John has a good combination of both."
Gordon was selected last week by the state ACLU board, which had 140 applicants, according to chair Jonathan Abram. The number was winnowed to 10, and Gordon was the unanimous choice of both the search committee and the full board.
"It was a big for week for John," said a friend, Hennepin District Judge Edward T. Wahl. Last week Gordon won an award for service from Milkweed Editions, where he chaired the nonprofit publishing house's board. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision of a bankruptcy court case that Gordon worked on. Then came the state ACLU appointment.
The ACLU, both nationally and locally, has been a national story in the past year, clashing with President Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions over policies that include the temporary ban on restricting the entrance of refugees into the country.
Gordon said he supports the ACLU's stance on pushing back against the Trump administration. "The ACLU is a nonpartisan organization but we do believe in the rule of law and the constitution. But we do hear things coming from the White House and Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department that threaten both the rule of law and the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The examples of that are legion and too numerous to list."
The ACLU also came under fire this summer from some civil liberties advocates for its support of the right of white supremacists to hold a rally in Charlottesville, Va., that led to a clash with civil rights activists, one of whom was killed.
"We will do anything we can to make sure white supremacists do not threaten or bully or engage anybody in our community, and we are not going to represent them in any way that allows them to do that," Gordon said.
Gordon has tried more than 100 cases ranging from personal injury and environmental cases to bankruptcy and done extensive pro bono work. He was part of a team of lawyers representing LGBT students who were being harassed because of their sexual orientation and who alleged they were not protected by the Anoka School District.
Gordon, 69, does not see his tenure at the ACLU as a short one. "My running buddies make sure I have enough exercise and I feel I have the energy to do this for a long time," he said.
After Chuck Samuelson stepped down in February as executive director, Teresa Nelson, the chapter's legal director, became interim executive director, and Gordon was asked by then-state ACLU board chair William Pentelovitch to temporarily replace Nelson. At the time neither Pentelovitch nor Gordon thought it would be permanent.
"I needed someone with a lot of legal experience," said Pentelovitch. "I have known John for 40 years. I knew he was retiring, I knew he was looking for stuff to do. So I called him and asked him if he would take on a full-time gig for six or seven months. And he said, 'When do I start?' He didn't even ask how much he'd get paid, which wasn't very much, I might add."
Gordon lists several top priorities for the chapter, including racial justice, privacy in technology, First Amendment rights, the rights of immigrants, LGBT issues and reproductive rights. He said he plans "to get out and listen to people" including members of the NAACP and OutFront Minnesota, an LGBT rights group.
Gordon grew up in Des Moines, graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and clerked for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before going to work for Faegre in 1974.
He has been president of the Hennepin County Bar Association and chair of the Fund for Legal Aid, the funding arm of Mid Minnesota Legal Assistance. He is married to Joanne Gordon, a ballet teacher, with three children, Bennett, a digital financial consultant, Susan Horrell, an ER nurse, and Anne Gordon, who teaches law at Duke University and is on the board of the ACLU of North Carolina.