LOS ANGELES -- Hector Villagra has been named to succeed Ramona Ripston as executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, becoming the first Latino to hold the post.

Villagra, 42, the ACLU/SC’s legal director, has played a key role in several high-profile civil rights cases in the region.

Hector Villagra“It is a humbling honor to be tasked with leading an organization that has meant so much to Southern California,” Villagra said Monday. “So many diverse communities find themselves in need of civil liberties protections, and I intend to continue this organization’s proud tradition of protecting everyone’s rights.”

An icon in the region’s civil rights community, Ripston announced earlier this year she was stepping down after 38 years. Villagra will succeed Ripston when she retires on February 15, 2011.

“I am elated and thrilled that Hector will succeed me,” Ripston said. “Los Angeles and Southern California must show the rest of the nation what it means to function in a multiethnic, civically engaged society. Hector’s intelligence and experience will make him a leader in that effort.”

A native of Southern California, Villagra earned his law degree from Columbia University School of Law in 1994. He joined the ACLU/SC in 2005, and became legal director in 2009. During his tenure at the ACLU/SC, Villagra has built an impressive record in civil rights litigation.

In 2008, he helped uphold LAPD’s Special Order 40, which prohibits officers from using immigration status to initiate investigations. Special Order 40 helps encourage immigrants to provide information to police and is an important crime-fighting tool.

Villagra was instrumental in helping protect a Buddhist congregation's First Amendment rights to free religious exercise after the City of Garden Grove denied the Quan Am Temple's request for a building permit. The ACLU/SC filed suit against the city in 2006, and later helped secure an agreement that ultimately resulted in a permit.

Villagra also settled a case against the County of San Bernardino where the county jail policy required the removal of the headscarf known as the hijab, forcing Muslim women to violate their religious beliefs.

His selection was confirmed unanimously this month by the board of directors of the ACLU and the ACLU Foundation.

"Hector is ideally suited for the position of executive director,” said Stephen Rohde, chair of the ACLU Foundation. “He has the mind of a brilliant lawyer, the compassion of a community organizer and the people skills to inspire our staff, work closely with board members and encourage support from all our donors and stakeholders."

ACLU President Alan Toy said Hector “has a deep understanding of social justice as it applies to civil rights and constitutionally guaranteed liberties.”

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1923 by author and activist Upton Sinclair. The ACLU of Southern California is the oldest and one of the largest, and most progressive affiliates of the ACLU - the nation’s foremost advocate for individual liberty and equality, and its leading guardian against unwarranted government interference and abuse.

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