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Sally Yates

United States

For defending the integrity of the U.S. Justice Department

Sally Yates

On Jan. 27, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and indefinitely suspending the entry of refugees from Syria, Sally Yates faced a decision that would define her 27-year career at the Justice Department.

Yates, who’d only become acting attorney general a week earlier, had about 72 hours to make an agonizing choice. As the government’s top law enforcement official, should she defend a policy she vehemently opposed? Should she resign in protest? Or should she do something altogether different?

By the following Monday, Yates had made her decision: In a one-page memo, she informed her department that it should defy the White House. It was her duty, she wrote, to protect “this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.” The executive order, she argued, violated those principles, as well as the law. The department would therefore not defend the order in court.

This act of defiance earned Yates the distinction of being one of the first officials fired by Trump. And it reminded the nation what principled resistance to the president should look like.

Yates’s colleagues describe her stand as an unflinching defense of the department’s autonomy vis-à-vis the White House. “She might have moved up to the leadership, but she still had the independence of a career prosecutor,” says Carrie Cordero, another former career Justice Department official, who during her tenure at the national security division worked on some of the George W. Bush administration’s controversial intelligence programs. “I think that she upheld the best traditions of the department by interpreting the law as she thought was right.”

Whether Yates should have just resigned rather than oppose the order remains a topic of debate among legal scholars. But as Trump has attempted to use the Justice Department to advance his own agenda — for example, by ripping up civil rights protections and attempting to kill an investigation that threatens him — Yates, now a lecturer at Georgetown University, is a powerful reminder for her former colleagues of how to put principle over politics.

Speaking at Harvard Law School’s graduation ceremony in May, Yates cast her fateful stand as a defense of her former employer’s basic values.

“The Department of Justice is not just another law firm, and this wasn’t just any legal issue,” she said. “It was about the core founding principle of religious freedom.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Yates hails from a family of lawyers, and her paternal grandmother, Tabitha Quillian, was one of the first women admitted to the Georgia bar. But practicing law as a woman in 1930s Georgia was not readily accepted, so Quillian worked as her husband’s legal secretary.