Acting Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates became the latest Georgian to lead a high-profile resistance against President Donald Trump’s administration on Monday when she ordered the Justice Department not to defend the Republican’s immigration policy in court.
“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,” Yates wrote in a memo to federal attorneys.
It was a short-lived decision. Trump fired Yates late Monday and replaced her with Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is set to rescind the order.
“It is time to get serious about protecting our country,” read the White House statement announcing Yates’ ouster. “Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.”
Yates was set to be out of power within days when Trump’s pick for Attorney General – Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions – is confirmed. Still, it put her in the pantheon of high-profile Trump objectors from Georgia.
Earlier this month, Trump unleashed a stream of criticism aimed at Georgia Rep. John Lewis after he questioned the legitimacy of his presidency and announced he would boycott his inauguration. Trump targeted Lewis, the civil rights icon, as “all talk” and said his Atlanta-based district was in “horrible shape.”
The president also vented on Monday at Yates, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, saying on Twitter that Democrats have “nothing going but to obstruct.”
Yates has deep roots in Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law and worked at the King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta in 1989.
She was promoted to U.S. Attorney for the district in 2010 before Obama tapped her for the No. 2 job at the Justice Department in 2014. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate months later with overwhelming bipartisan support, including the backing of Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue.
“She has been an equal opportunity prosecutor,” Isakson said then in endorsing her. “She’s prosecuted Democrats, Republicans, independents, Olympic park bombers, anybody that violated the public trust, any abuse of power.”
At that 2015 confirmation hearing, Sessions confronted her with a question about whether an attorney general can refuse a president’s order “if he asks for something that’s improper.”
Her response: “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.”
Within hours of Yates’ decision to defy Trump, Democratic circles in Georgia were abuzz with talk that she could return to Atlanta to run for governor or other statewide office in 2018. Her husband Comer, a veteran school administrator, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1996 as a centrist Democrat against Cynthia McKinney.
Her career is dotted with high-profile cases, including the prosecution of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph and the successful public corruption cases against ex-Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, former Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis and former state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko.
She often talked of her job as a prosecutor as a calling, saying at a 2013 women’s leadership series organized by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she can’t imagine working in any other role.
“This is going to sound incredibly corny, but when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s office and realized the luxury that you have as a lawyer to believe that you’re on the right side of a matter, to be representing the people of the United States, and to carry that privilege every day – how do you go back to something else when you’ve had that chance to do that?”
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