Sally Yates’s tenure as acting attorney general was supposed to be filled with “a lot of long, boozy lunches.”
That’s what her former chief of staff jokingly told her to expect during the political transition of power in January, a time meant to be “uneventful” and “status quo” while President Trump waited for the Senate to confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Yates, as deputy attorney general during the last years of President Barack Obama’s term, was to stay briefly on staff for “continuity.”
“It was supposed to be an uneventful time,” Yates said Wednesday at the Harvard Law School class day ceremony.
But what actually happened was quite the opposite.
“There wasn’t time for lunches at all,” she said, “boozy or otherwise.”
Yates then explained the decision that catapulted her name into the president’s tweets and earned her hero status among liberals — but not before this preface: “The defining moments in our lives often don’t come with advance warning.”
“They can arise in scenarios we would have never expected,” she added, “and they don’t come sometimes with the luxury of a whole lot of time to go inside yourself for some serious introspection.”
She was on her way to the airport for a late afternoon flight on Jan. 27, a Friday, when she learned from news reports that Trump had signed an executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Within a matter of hours, Yates said she thought, her Department of Justice lawyers would be tasked with defending the constitutionality of the order in court even though they knew little about it.
“This is not what I was expecting,” she told the Harvard Law graduates.
What came next, Yates said, was “illustrative of an unexpected moment, when the law and conscience intersected and a decision had to be made in a very short period of time.”
She reviewed the legal challenges, read case law and conferred with Justice Department lawyers before deciding that defending the ban would force her people to argue it “was not intended to disfavor Muslims,” even though the past words of Trump and his surrogates implied otherwise.
“I believed that this would require us to advance a pretext, a defense not grounded in truth,” Yates told the graduates, “so I directed the Department of Justice not to defend the ban.”
With those words, the crowd erupted in applause.
But Yates said the decision she made was not without internal conflict. She grappled with whether she should resign instead of issue a directive, and told the graduates that she believed those who doubted her choice raised a “fair question.”
“But I believed then and I believe now that resigning would have protected my personal integrity,” she said, “but it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice.”
Though the decision came just 72 hours after the ban was issued, Yates said the reasoning and judgment that went into it were 27 years in the making, the amount of time she served in the Department of Justice.
She credited judges who held government lawyers like her to a higher standard and mentors who instilled in her “a reverence for the privilege of representing the people of the United States and upholding the law in the Constitution.”
Yates told the graduates that with each experience they collected throughout their careers, they were building their “compass.”
“You too will face weighty decisions, where the law and conscience intertwine, and while it may not play out in such a public way, the conflict you’ll feel will be no less real, and the consequences of your decision also significant,” she said. “The time for introspection is all along the way, to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for, because you never know when you’re going to be called to answer that question.”
She said what was more “remarkable” about watching the weekend of unrest was that the people flooding the airports were largely unaffected personally by the travel ban.
“It didn’t impact them,” she said, “Yet they still felt compelled to act and speak out.”
And, she said, those who gathered weren’t just protesters.
“Lawyers streamed to the airports, too,” she said.
Yates said there are causes worth fighting for as lawyers. She named those she prioritizes — criminal justice reform, respect for law enforcement, corporate accountability, marriage equality and, she said, “the rule of law and the principle that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be free to do their work free of political interference and intimidation.”
Then she urged the graduates to build their own list.
“The arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend there on its own,” she said. “And so I would urge you to grab hold of that arc and not let go because the people of our country and indeed the entire world are counting on you.”
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