Most only think of Sally Yates as the acting attorney general who stood up to President Trump’s proposed travel ban that targeted those from Muslim countries. However, as she recounted at the UGA law school’s Edith House Lecture Mar. 23, her career was filled with bold moments.
An alumna of UGA’s law school, Yates looked back fondly at her time as a student, especially her first year. “There’s something about your first-year section and the boot-camp mentality that you have,” she said. UGA Law stands apart from other law schools due to the comradery among the students, according to Yates. “At a lot of law schools, people are cheering for your failures… [it is] exactly the opposite here.”
Although she is known for spending over 20 years of her life working for the U.S. Department of Justice, Yates had no intentions of becoming a prosecutor. She started her career at the Atlanta firm King & Spalding, but her sister-in-law suggested she apply for a position at the Atlanta U.S. Attorney’s Office. “[The other newcomers] had criminal prosecutorial experience,” she said. “I had none.”
However, with a lot of research, studying and observing others, Yates quickly rose through the ranks and became deputy attorney general under Eric Holder and, later, Loretta Lynch. Near the conclusion of her time in the Justice Department, most of the leadership were women, which was a huge shift from the start of her career. “When I started at King & Spalding, there was only one female litigation partner,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still more to do.”
Yates also discussed the events of Jan. 27, 2017, the day the travel ban was announced. Yates was actually leaving D.C. when her chief of staff informed her of the ban via a New York Times article. She spent the weekend figuring out the application and legal challenges of the executive order, and whether or not she would instruct the department to enforce the ban. Yates struggled with the option of simply resigning, saying, “I thought about resigning instead… but that doesn’t protect the integrity of the Department of Justice.” Yates’ decision not to defend the travel ban was praised by Democrats, but led to Trump removing her from the position.
Now a professor at Georgetown, Yates encouraged students to consider public service. “We all have an obligation in our lives to some type of public service,” she said, advising young lawyers to use the skills and expertise they’ve learned to better the world.