I’ve just finished my first week of college at Mercer University, where I plan to double major in journalism and political science and minor in global development studies on the pre-law track. With my education, I hope to become a political journalist for a national media source, a human rights lawyer, or a politician. Being a woman in college with aspirations in the political realm presents its challenges: women aren’t encouraged to run for office or take on high leadership positions and are often taken less seriously than their male counterparts.
As I plan for a politically-involved future, I’ve been inspired by a woman with a similar background to the one I’m creating for myself right now: Sally Yates.
Yates attended the University of Georgia, a school I was accepted to in my hometown of Athens, and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism — one of my intended majors and my current passion. She then took her degree and headed to UGA’s law school, something I plan to do as well, and worked as the editor of the Georgia Law Review while advancing her education. After graduating, she was immediately involved in the politics and law. Her “breakout” case was that of Eric Rudolph, for whom she was the lead prosecutor; Rudolph was convicted of several anti-abortion and anti-gay terrorist bombings between 1996 and 1998 in the southern U.S. and was found guilty of the Centennial Olympic Park pipe bombing that killed 1 person and injured 111 more in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. As a southern-born pro-choice advocate and LGBTQ+ ally dedicated to dispelling the myth that terrorism is some deranged Middle Eastern ritual, the conviction of a white, American terrorist by someone like Sally Yates symbolizes to me the strength of the resistance against those dedicated to social regression, and Yates’ role in that provided me with a successful, educated, like-minded woman to look up to as I study a similar field with similar career goals.
The resistance is female, and the future is, too.
Yates became the First Assistant U.S. Attorney in 2002 and the Acting U.S. Attorney in 2004, where she held leadership positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations — something that exemplifies a complicated mix of resiliency, flexibility, passion, and compromise that we need to emulate in today’s increasingly divisive America. She was then the first woman to hold the title of U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. In 2015, the Senate confirmed her as Deputy Attorney General of the United States, the second-highest-ranking position in our Justice Department. That same year, she wrote the “Yates memo,” detailing “the prosecution of executives for corporate crimes.”
A woman whose story is so close to my own rising to top ranks, convicting alt-right terrorists, and taking on big business inspires me to achieve the dreams that some have told me aren’t attainable. What motivates me even more, though, is her dedication to her ideals over job preservation: just after accepting a request from the Trump administration to serve as Acting Attorney General, she warned that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied about his contact with Russia and would be an easy target for Russian blackmailing. Flynn resigned hours after The Washington Post ran the story, and Yates was immediately met with intense controversy:
General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that… Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council.”
At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities of the Department of Justice, nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful…I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. For as long as I am the acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of th[is] executive order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.”
In reality, speaking out against what one knows to be wrong even when theirs is the minority view is the very definition of bravery and aligns more with the role of the Department of Justice than does blindly following rules set by an unstable leader. Refusing to adhere to an order that she recognized as unjust at risk of losing her job was a powerful, resonant display of courage that I will forever hold in the highest regard and reflect upon for inspiration as I prepare for my own career in law, public policy, and the preservation of justice.
It’s an example of standing up for what is right, and the character and grit Sally Yates represents are qualities I hope to exemplify as I enter the world and attempt to not follow in her footsteps, but leave my own tracks alongside hers.