Looking Back and Looking Forward: A Conversation with Sally Yates

 /  April 10, 2022, 3:02 p.m.

Sally Yates

Spring Quarter 2021 University of Chicago IOP Fellow Sally Yates served as Deputy U.S. Attorney General from January 8, 2015 to January 20, 2017 and as Acting Attorney General from January 20, 2017 to January 30, 2017. Yates was very involved with the DOJ’s transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. A Georgian native, she began her legal career in private practice law at King and Spalding. Yates transitioned to public service to work in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Georgia. While serving in the Department of Justice for over 27 years, she has worked to advocate for criminal justice and prison system reform. 

The Gate sat down with Yates to discuss her career and her advice for women aspiring to enter the legal field.

The Gate: You have had a notable career in the legal field, ranging from private practice law to holding public office in the Department of Justice. How did you get started in the legal field?

Sally Yates: I come from a family brimming with lawyers. It seems like everyone in my family was a lawyer: my father, my grandfather, uncles, cousins, [and] my paternal grandmother, who actually was a lawyer back in the day when they didn’t really hire [women]. In the South, they called them “lady lawyers” and she ended up having to be the secretary to my grandfather, and later my dad and my uncle, even though she was smarter than all of them. So, it was not a very original career choice on my part.

The Gate: What was the transition from practicing private practice law at King and Spalding to working at the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia like? Can you elaborate on similarities and differences? What are some of the challenges that come with working for the Department of Justice that private practice law firms do not have to contend with?

Sally Yates: The similarity between the two would be that you are trying to do your very very best work -- so you want to be thorough, you want to be a persuasive writer, and all of those things. The fact of the matter is that there is so much more at stake when you are at the Department of Justice because, particularly on the criminal side, it is someone’s liberty that is at stake, and you have victims of the crime. The most important thing is that when you are at the DOJ, your only responsibility is to seek justice: it is not to win, it is not to put people in prison, and it is not to get stats. So, [it’s about] how you do your job and making sure that you’re never ever even close to an ethical line, and that you’re always seeking justice in a way that would engender the trust of the people that you are serving. That is very different from being in private practice where you’re still, at the core, supposed to be ethical, but your responsibility is to represent a private client’s interest. At DOJ, your interest is society’s interest and justice. You are representing the people of the United States. That is different.

The Gate: How did serving as the lead prosecutor on the Eric Rudolph and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing case lead you to be excited about working in the public sector?

Sally Yates: I have done a lot of different kinds of cases, whether it was public corruption or fraud cases, but this was one that had such a dramatic impact, not just on Atlanta, but on the world. When there was a bomb at the Olympics, and towards the beginning of the Olympics, it really reverberated all across the globe. There were questions of “do the Games go on?” and “how do you handle this?”, so there is that impact. But, also, you have the impact of the people who died and their families, and the people who were injured, and there are obviously victims and their families who will never be the same again. You feel a real responsibility not just to seek justice for those victims, but also to try and prevent it from happening again when you know that there is a bomber out there on the loose.

The Gate: How did your role in the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia change as you gained more leadership positions? 

Sally Yates: It evolved over time. When I first started and was a brand new assistant, firstly, I was trying to figure out what the heck I was doing, and, secondly, I was responsible for my cases, but I obviously wasn’t supervising anybody else. So, my job then was to do my very best work that I could on my cases.

But, over time, I became, for example, the Supervisor of the White-Collar Section, public corruption, so in that sense that I am overseeing the work of a big group of prosecutors and still handling some cases of my own. My job there was to make sure that their work is being done the right way, that we’re being consistent and we’re being fair, and those things, and starting to develop some priorities. 

Then, when I was US Attorney there, I’m not handling cases myself, but you’re trying to establish the priorities of the office, how you’re going to the use the limited resources, and how you’re going to interact with the public, and how it all fits into the larger piece of DOJ as an institution across the country. Finally, as Deputy Attorney General, where there are 113,000 people that I’m responsible for, that is much more of a policymaking role. I wasn’t handling specific cases myself at all but a policy-making decision. Sometimes, then, [I was in charge of making] decisions on really big significant cases or where there is a disagreement between components of the DOJ. So, the longer I was there and the higher up I got, the more removed [I was] from handling specific cases and the more involved in policy and overseeing others.

The Gate: What aspects of your role as Deputy Attorney General of the United States did you enjoy most?

Sally Yates: I liked the policymaking role. I liked being able to look at how we were doing something at the DOJ, and to be able to zoom out and say, “just because we’ve always done it this way, have times changed or is there a better way of doing it or did we have some unintended consequences?” [Then,] trying to adapt and make sure that the way we were approaching [the policies] was the very best way possible, but also sometimes seeing things like one of the things was looking at how we were handling things at the Bureau of Prisons, when it came to handling things like education of inmates there. My perspective was that we weren’t doing nearly enough, and then having the ability to actually change that and say, okay, we are not only going to do GEDs for inmates, for example. We know that high school diplomas are much more useful for individuals when they come out of prison than GEDs are, so we are going to change over to a high school diploma program. That is an exciting thing, to be able to look at those kinds of things and be able to effectuate that kind of change.

The Gate: How did your earlier experiences in the Northern District of Georgia help you in this role of Deputy Attorney General?

Sally Yates: In contrast to people maybe who had never actually been on the ground, I think I had a good sense of how those policies would translate into real life scenarios. If you have only been on the policy side, some things can sound really good when you are sitting around the table and talking to a bunch of people about it. But, if you have to actually go out there and carry out that policy in the field, it may not work so well. So, I was always trying to look at the policy decisions we were making through the prism of “how will that be carried out by the Assistant United States attorneys all across the country who have to actually breathe life into this. I think it was absolutely invaluable, and, hopefully also, it gave me some credibility with the people in the field. I wasn’t just some pointy-headed person up in Washington who had never done what they’d done. I had, and it started at the entry level of a prosecutor, and I worked my way up.

The Gate: When you became Acting Attorney General, how did you anticipate the transition from the Obama Administration would go? Did you notice any immediate changes in how the Department of Justice functioned during the transitional period?

Sally Yates: I expected it to go uneventfully because that is how transition periods normally are. There were no changes during the time after [Trump] was elected but before he was in office because the Obama Administration was still in charge during that time. We were working with [Trump’s] Administration, trying to bring them up to speed on what is going on, not just in the DOJ, but in all of the agencies. Big notebooks are prepared for them and briefings [are conducted]. There really weren’t significant policy changes right out of the gate during the time I was Acting Attorney General because that was part of the deal where we would keep everything status quo, until, of course, President Trump instituted the travel ban which was a surprise. That was a pretty big change.

The Gate: When you released the letter stating that you were not convinced that Executive Order 13769, regarding immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, was lawful and that you would not defend it, did you foresee the fall out that came?

Sally Yates: No, I certainly recognized it was a significant step to take, and it wasn’t one that I took lightly. It was one that I tried to consider from all different angles [to figure out] what was the right thing to do here. But, no. Did I anticipate that there would be people at the airports protesting and all over the country for an extended period of time, that there would be lawyers that are there volunteering their services to people that are trying to get back into the country that were being turned away, and that it would tap into something with so many people who weren’t personally affected by it, but rather were disturbed by something that was so antithetical to our definition of our country? No, I didn’t anticipate that. But, I certainly recognized that it was a significant step for me to take.

The Gate: Looking back, would you have done the same thing today?

Sally Yates: Yes.

The Gate: In a 2017 New York Times editorial, you expressed that Trump was using political influence on the Justice Department. Would you say that in this action, you were working to act as a check on the Executive power?

Sally Yates: No, it wasn’t really to be a check on the Executive power. It was that the Department of Justice was having to go into court to defend the travel ban, and we had a judge put it squarely to us: what is the Department of Justice’s position on the constitutionality of the travel ban? It was clear to me to defend it that we were going to have to say that the travel ban had absolutely nothing to do with religion, despite Trump’s statements over and over again of his intent to effectuate a Muslim ban. We were going to have to go in and argue a pretext which I don’t think the Department of Justice should do. So, I wasn’t out there looking for a way to be a check on the Trump Administration, but rather, this landed squarely in the lap of DOJ, and it was my responsibility to ensure that I upheld the principles of DOJ and that I didn’t send lawyers in to argue something that wasn’t true. 

The Gate:  Do you see the Trump administration’s attempt to block you from testifying to the Senate judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election as another example of Trump overstepping his executive power?

Sally Yates: I wouldn’t presume to know what was in their head when they did that.

The Gate: How do you think the legal system can continue to bolster efforts to maintain a balance between government branches, in general?

Sally Yates: I think that a silver lining out of all of this is that people who aren’t necessarily involved in government or directly involved in these issues have become much more sensitized to this over the last few years. I think they’re more in tune to the fact that democracy doesn’t protect itself, and that we have an expectation for what all three of our branches of government should be doing, and people are getting more vocal about it when they don’t see that happening. Certainly, the legislative branch responds to its constituents because they’re elected by them. I am hopeful that, over time, that message will sink in: regardless of where somebody is on a partisan spectrum, that protecting the democratic institutions and the functions of our government is the most important thing.

The Gate: What advice would you give to young women aspiring to be lawyers?

Sally Yates: The good news is that I think the legal profession is more open for women obviously than it was back when I was starting. I think there is still a way to go in terms of having women in the upper levels of the legal profession. When you look, it's like 50-50 of women and men coming out of law school. That is a great thing; some of the very best lawyers when I was at the DOJ were obviously women. I think the sky's the limit, and women just need to be their authentic selves and not try to fit into a mold of what somebody else thinks a female lawyer would be.

The Gate: What is next for you, in terms of your career? Are you planning to continue to work in private practice law? Do you see any public roles in your future?

Sally Yates: Well, my heart is in public service, there is no question about that, but I am really enjoying private practice now. I have opportunities to do things like this, like spend time at the University of Chicago, and be involved in other non-profits. I am really lucky to have a good mixture of things. But look, if the right opportunity in public service came along, of course, I would always be open to that.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. No changes were made to the original image which was taken by Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals and can be found here.

Emma Burstiner


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