Sally Caroline Yates (née Quillian; born August 20, 1960) is an American lawyer. She served as a United States Attorney and later United States Deputy Attorney General, having been appointed to both positions by President Barack Obama.
Following the inauguration of Donald Trump and the departure of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Yates served as Acting Attorney General from January 20, 2017, until being dismissed by President Trump on January 30, 2017, following her instruction to the Justice Department not to defend Trump's immigration-related executive order in court.
Yates was born in Atlanta to J. Kelley Quillian, an attorney and judge who served as a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals between 1966 and 1984, and Xara Terrell Quillian. Her grandmother had been one of the first women admitted to the Georgia Bar; however, she was not hired as an attorney, instead working as a legal secretary for Yates's grandfather.
Yates attended the University of Georgia, receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism in 1982. In 1986, she earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Georgia School of Law, graduating magna cum laude. While in law school, Yates served as the executive editor of the Georgia Law Review.
In 1986, Yates was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia. From 1986 to 1989, Yates was an associate at the law firm King & Spalding in Atlanta, specializing in commercial litigation. In 1989, she was hired as Assistant U.S. Attorney by Bob Barr for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia. Early in her career at the Department of Justice, Yates prosecuted a variety of types of cases including white-collar fraud and political corruption. In 1994, she became Chief of the Fraud and Public Corruption Section. She was the lead prosecutor in the case of Eric Rudolph, who committed the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, a terrorist convicted for a series of anti-abortion and anti-gay bombings across the southern United States between 1996 and 1998, which killed two people and injured over 120 others. She rose to First Assistant U.S. Attorney in 2002 and to Acting U.S. Attorney in 2004. In the U.S. Attorney's office she held leadership positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
President Barack Obama nominated Yates to be U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. She was confirmed by the Senate on March 10, 2010. Yates was the first woman to hold that position in the Northern District of Georgia. During her time as a U.S. Attorney, Yates was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to serve as Vice Chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee.
On May 13, 2015, the United States Senate voted 84–12 (4 not voting) to confirm Yates as Deputy Attorney General of the United States, the second-highest-ranking position in the Justice Department; during her confirmation hearing, when questioned by Senator Jeff Sessions if she would disobey a president's unlawful orders, she responded that she would have an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give an independent legal advice to the president. She served under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who took office shortly before Yates's confirmation.
As Deputy Attorney General, Yates was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Justice Department, which included approximately 113,000 employees. In 2015, she authored the policy, known as the "Yates memo", prioritizing the prosecution of executives for corporate crimes. During the final days of the Obama administration, she oversaw the review of 16,000 petitions for executive clemency, making recommendations to the President.
In January 2017, according to a Justice Department spokesman, Yates accepted a request from the incoming Trump administration to serve as Acting Attorney General, beginning on January 20, 2017, and until the successor for Attorney General Lynch would be confirmed by the United States Senate.
In late January, Yates warned the Trump administration that National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn had not been truthful about his contacts with Russia related to sanctions and that he was vulnerable to blackmail by Russian intelligence. The Washington Post publicly reported Yates's warning on February 13, 2017, and within hours Flynn resigned.
On January 30, 2017, Yates ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump's executive order on travel and immigration, writing in a letter to DOJ staff:
At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities of the Department of Justice, nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful...I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution's solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. For as long as I am the acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of th[is] executive order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.
In response to her decision not to defend the order, former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted that he trusted her judgment.
Later that day, via hand-delivered letter, she was dismissed by the Trump administration and replaced with Dana Boente, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. A White House statement claimed that Yates had "betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Yates's actions "a profile in courage. It was a brave act and a right act", while Rep. John Conyers criticized the decision to fire her: "If dedicated government officials deem [Trump's] directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional, he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show."
Law professor Jonathan Adler said, however, that "Yates did not claim she was convinced the order was unlawful, but only that it was not 'wise or just'" and that he was "not aware of any instance in which the Justice Department has refused to defend a presumptively lawful executive action on this basis". Adler argued that she should have resigned and publicly stated her reasons for doing so. It was reported that Yates considered and opted not to resign because she did not want to leave her successor facing the same question.
The editors of National Review said her defiance of the executive order was "inappropriate", since Yates was unelected and "every official in the Justice Department knows, if one disagrees with the law one is called upon to apply, or the policy one is bound to enforce, one is free to resign".
The New York Times and others drew comparisons to U.S. President Richard Nixon's dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre and "some cable networks" began calling Yates's dismissal the "Monday Night Massacre". Watergate investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, however, speaking on CNN, rejected the comparison. "There's a big difference, because the Saturday Night Massacre was really about firing the attorney general when Nixon was the target of an investigation and was actively obstructing justice", he said. "I think the president is within his rights here to fire the attorney general, that he has that ability."
Following Yates's dismissal, Representative Jackie Speier nominated her for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. Georgia State Senator Elena Parent introduced a resolution commending Yates. Democratic Party operatives in Georgia began recruiting Yates to run for Governor of Georgia in the 2018 election.
In March 2017, Yates was invited by the House Intelligence Committee to testify before Congress at a public hearing as part of the committee's "bipartisan, ongoing investigation into the Russian active measures campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. election".
Later the same month, however, The Washington Post published documents indicating that the Trump administration had sought to block her from testifying, including letters from the Justice Department to Yates indicating that the administration considers her possible testimony on the ouster of Flynn to be barred by the presidential communications privilege or deliberative process privilege.
The public hearing at which Yates had been set to testify was canceled by Chairman Devin Nunes, who said through his spokesperson that neither he nor anyone else in the committee had discussed Yates's testimony with the White House. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called The Washington Post story "false"; said that "the White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying" and that the White House had given its tacit consent; and added "I hope she testifies."
On May 8, 2017, Yates and James Clapper testified for three hours before the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism over the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Yates said the FBI interviewed then-National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn on January 24, 2017. Because of that interview she made an "urgent" request to meet with White House Counsel Don McGahn. She met with him on January 26 and again on January 27. She informed McGahn that Flynn was "compromised" and possibly open to blackmail by the Russians. As previously reported, she told McGahn that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials about the nature of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. She said Flynn's "underlying conduct", which she could not describe due to classification, "was problematic in and of itself," adding "(i)t was a whole lot more than one White House official lying to another."
Yates's husband, Comer Yates, is a school administrator who in 1996 unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Democrat.
In January 2016, Yates received Emory University School of Law's Emory Public Interest Committee (EPIC) Inspiration Award. Following Yates's dismissal as Acting Attorney General, Representative Jackie Speier nominated her for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and Georgia State Senator Elena Parent introduced a resolution commending Yates. In April 2017, Yates received the Mary Church Terrell Freedom and Justice Award during the Detroit NAACP's 62nd Annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.
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