Alumni Profiles

Up for the Challenge

Jacqueline Romero
Photos by Jonathan Kolbe

The groundbreaking new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is a Rutgers Law School in Newark graduate who thrives on the powerful position’s enormous responsibility.

By Sam Starnes GSN’04

Jacqueline Romero’s window in the U.S. Attorney’s Office building in Philadelphia overlooks Independence Hall, the hallowed landmark where the United States government began to take shape. “My grandfather Diego Romero came to this country as an immigrant, alone at the age of 16,” she says, noting that he was a fisherman from Spain who arrived during the Great Depression. “Because of the promise of our Constitution, he felt like he was going to have a fair shake here and be able to make a life for himself and that he would be treated with equal justice. For me to be here today, looking out on this building and doing the job that I do, is the biggest privilege of my lifetime.”

Romero was born in Tenafly, New Jersey, and grew up there. As a child, she worked in her family’s diner, Romero’s Restaurant, where her father was the short-order cook. She began devouring newspapers in the diner when business was slow, and at the age of five, she declared her intention to be a judge someday. She would go on to graduate from Rutgers Law School in Newark in 1996 and be appointed U.S. attorney overseeing the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Her confirmation is groundbreaking in several ways: she is the first woman, the first Hispanic, and the first openly gay person to be appointed to this prominent role.

As the chief federal law enforcement official in charge of all federal prosecutions and civil litigation involving the United States in the district, she supervises 140 attorneys and a staff of equal size. The district includes Philadelphia and spreads out to cover nine counties with more than five million residents, making it one of the nation’s largest. Her office has the staggering task of addressing gun violence, the flow of fentanyl and opioids and other dangerous drugs, domestic and international terrorism, ruinous financial fraud and schemes, corrupt officials, and the exploitation of vulnerable communities. Although the assignment sounds overwhelming, Romero is undaunted. “This is quite possibly the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “Every day is different. Today I’ve been in contact with the Secret Service, ATF, and several U.S. attorneys across the country. The list goes on and on in terms of the issues and things that pop up in any given day. I enjoy the challenge.”

A stellar career

Romero decided she wanted to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office during her first year of law school after attending a career panel on campus that included Judge Alberto Rivas, a 1985 Rutgers Law graduate who was then an assistant U.S. attorney and is now a New Jersey Superior Court Judge. “He was fired up about being an assistant U.S. attorney and being able to not only prosecute criminals, but also have the prosecutorial discretion to make sure you’re going after the right people for the right reasons,” she says. “He’s the reason my email tagline says, ‘Do the right thing for the right reasons.’”

Romero with Saul Molina, a second-year student at Rutgers Law School in Camden who is working as a legal assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, at left, and Angella Middleton CLAW’15, an assistant U.S. attorney.

After graduation, she worked at a private firm for a year before joining the Department of Justice in Washington as a trial attorney in the commercial litigation section. She moved from there in 1998 to join the U.S. Mint, where she served as senior counsel, before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in 2006 in the district she now oversees.

Romero’s celebrated career thus far has included numerous complex and high-profile cases, including overseeing a complex false-claims suit that led to a $422 million settlement with Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. Her most personally satisfying case, though, is the recovery of 10 rare double eagle solid gold coins—estimated to be as worth as much $80 million today—that were stolen from the U.S. Mint in the 1930s. After an extended investigation and legal action that garnered worldwide media attention, Romero proved that the coins, which were in possession of a family, had been stolen. “That case ate up 11 years of my life,” she says. “These coins quite literally are a national treasure.” They were subsequently returned to the U.S. Mint.

Appointed by President Joe Biden in April, her confirmation by the U.S. Senate in June was supported by Pennsylvania senators on both sides of the aisle and resulted in a unanimous vote during a time of intense division between Democrats and Republicans. While Romero says she is proud to be the first woman, first Hispanic, and first representative of the LGBTQA+ community to hold the position, she is also pleased to be the rare assistant U.S. attorney to rise from within the office instead of an appointee selected from elsewhere. “I would say there has been more of a reaction to having one of our own, somebody who’s coming from the inside, who gets elevated to U.S. attorney.”

A foundation for success

Romero’s legal journey began at Rutgers Law School in Newark. After graduating from Trenton State College in 1993, which became the College of New Jersey three years later, Romero enrolled at Rutgers Law, attracted by the school’s Minority Student Program. “From the first day I stepped foot there, it was like I had walked into a family gathering,” she says. “The Minority Student Program does a tremendous job of not only making students feel welcome on day one but by also providing them with a roadmap of how to study and how to be successful.”

Two legendary Rutgers Law professors were major influences on Romero. One was Arthur Kinoy—a professor who had been one of the lawyers for the Chicago Seven and was a powerful force in the civil rights movement—who lived near her in Montclair. She would often give him rides home after class during which the two would have in-depth discussions of various cases. “I always joked that I was going to publish a book one day called ‘Riding with Arthur’,” she says of Kinoy, who died in 2003. “The stories that he told in the car were life altering for me.”

Professor Al Slocum, a Rutgers Law alumnus and a founder of the Minority Student Program, also had a major impact. She says Slocum, who held positions as New Jersey’s public advocate and public defender, demanded intense research on the cases he assigned. “If he called on you and you hadn’t done the work, he’d throw you out of class,” she says of Slocum, who died in 2018. “He was really an institution and a formidable human being. He is the person who made me so meticulous and so organized and so hardworking because his class absolutely required you to be up past midnight almost every night getting prepared. He is probably why I am here today.”

Slocum was instrumental in encouraging Romero to start a law journal after she complained to him that there were very few diverse law reviews. “He said that in the future, when people look back on history, they will look to law reviews to understand the legal issues of the day. If the voices of diverse people don’t exist in those journals, their history will never be told.”

Inspired by his words, she worked with fellow students and put together a mission statement and a plan to launch the Rutgers Race & the Law Review, which debuted in 1996, the year Romero graduated. It remains in publication.

Today, in her new Philadelphia office with the breathtaking view, Romero keeps a Rutgers Law School paperweight on her desk and photos of Kinoy and Slocum displayed. “I so appreciate the foundation that Rutgers Law gave me,” she says. “If I had to do it over again, I’d go back to Rutgers.”
Romero with law student Molina and three assistant U.S. attorneys who are all Rutgers Law School graduates. From left: Molina, Frank R. Costello Jr. CLAW’85, Romero, Middleton, and Joseph A. LaBar RC’80, CLAW’83.