This week, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates held her own while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. Her composed performance generally received rave reviews, especially on social media outlets such as Twitter.
Earlier this year, she also made headlines when she took a stand against her very powerful boss. Yates questioned the legality of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — and the move got her fired, though ultimately, federal judges seem to have agreed with her and have kept two versions of the ban from being implemented.
Regardless of your politics, developing the principles that enable you to stand up to the leader of the free world, and to maintain calm while being interrogated at length by senators, isn’t something that happens overnight. Here’s a look at the family background and career that helped form Yates’ steely resolve.
Growing up in Georgia
Yates’ grandmother was one of the first women admitted to the Georgia Bar, she recalls in an conversation with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“She would have been a heck of a lawyer. But women weren’t hired as lawyers back then. It just wasn’t done,” says Yates. “So instead, she was a secretary, first to my grandfather, who was a lawyer, and then for my father and his brother and their practice.”
“NOBODY IS A SUCCESS ON THEIR OWN.”
She was inspired by her grandmother’s resilience. “I realized that tenacity counts for a lot,” Yates says. “She became a lawyer without support systems. I thought to myself that, if she did that, how hard could it be for me?”
Yates’ father, J. Kelley Quillian, served on the Court of Appeals for the State of Georgia from 1966 to 1984 and as the court’s chief judge from 1981 to 1982. Prior to working in law, Quillian served in the U.S. Air Force as a sergeant in the Korean War and a captain in the Georgia National Guard.
Quillian worked according to five principles, which he says he learned from his father, according to his bio on the Georgia State of Appeals website. Those are: “(1) Don’t bend the law or legislate; (2) state the facts clearly and correctly; (3) clarity and conciseness are better than sesquipedalian words; (4) avoid flippancy; and (5) practice stare decisis.”
Yates studied Journalism in college and graduated from University of Georgia with her bachelor’s degree in 1982, according to her alma mater’s website. She graduated magna cum laude from the university’s School of Law in 1986.
She launched her career at the Atlanta branch of the law firm King & Spalding doing commercial litigation. She went on to work as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and then she prosecuted white-collar crimes in the Fraud and Public Corruption branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Notably, Yates served as the prosecutor during the trial of Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, who set off a blast that killed one and injured more than one hundred people.
“One of the great lessons is that nobody is a success on their own,” says Yates. “Off all the cases I’ve done, that’s the greatest example of the power of a team. The leader of a team has to demonstrate their respect for each person’s role on the team.”
A portentous exchange
Yates was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General in 2015 and served under Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
During her confirmation hearings, an exchange with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) — who is now President Donald Trump’s Attorney General — eerily predicted the adherence to principle that ultimately cost Yates her job.
Sessions encouraged Yates to be ready to stand up to the President. Yates assured him that, if called upon, she would do just that.
“Senator, I believe that the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president,” she told the man who may now succeed her.
Yates was as good as her word. In a letter sent to top justice officials this winter, Yates disclosed reservations about the Constitutionality of Trump’s first immigration ban.
“At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful,” she wrote.
Higher courts concurred with her assessment and have blocked either version of Trump’s immigration ban from going into effect.
Cracking down on corporations
In September 2015, Yates sent a letter to Department of Justice attorneys that became known as the “Yates memo.” It declares that corporations need to be held to account.
“Fighting corporate fraud and other misconduct is a top priority of the Department of Justice,” writes Yates.
“One of the most effective ways to combat corporate misconduct is by seeking accountability from the individuals who perpetrated the wrongdoing.
“Such accountability is important for several reasons: It deters future illegal activity, it incentivizes changes in corporate behavior, it ensures that the proper parties are held responsible for their actions, and it promotes the public’s confidence in our justice system.”
She details the reasons it can be challenging to hold corporations responsible, and she outlines best practices for doing it regardless.
In it, Yates also shows a willingness to combat white-collar crime, even if it isn’t the most lucrative choice.
“Although in the short term certain cases against individuals may not provide as robust a monetary return on the Department’s investment, pursuing individual actions in civil corporate matters will result in significant long-term deterrence.”
Career advice from one of the nation’s top attorneys
Yates urges young people to follow their hearts when looking for jobs.
“The key to professional happiness and success is pursuing what is meaningful to you and pursuing it with a vengeance.
“THE KEY TO PROFESSIONAL HAPPINESS AND SUCCESS IS PURSUING WHAT IS MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND PURSUING IT WITH A VENGEANCE.”
“I know way too many people who are in powerful, high-paying jobs who don’t get much satisfaction from it. They enjoy the lifestyle, but the work isn’t terribly meaningful,” she says.
Yates is motivated by her own commitment to make the world a better place.
“That’s where I’ve been incredibly lucky in my professional life. What I do is meaningful to me and has made a difference in the big scheme of things.
“I realize that we’re not doing Mother Teresa’s work here at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but I do think what we’re doing makes a difference.”
This is an updated version of a previously published article.