The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land.
The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed. Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields. Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.” But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client.
“These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm. “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”
That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years. In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department. A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her 84-to-12 Senate vote.
As the “DAG,” Yates runs the Justice Department on a day-to-day basis, overseeing 116,000 employees, including those in the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Prisons.
One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.
Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s.
“Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said. “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”
More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative. In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.
“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said. “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible. But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”
“We have a lot to do and a short time to do it,” she said.
During her years as a prosecutor, Yates handled a wide variety of cases and specialized in public corruption. After the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Yates caught the attention of senior Justice Department officials — including then-Deputy Attorney General Holder — when she came to brief them in Washington.
“We were sitting in the attorney general’s conference room with [Attorney General] Janet Reno, and Sally came in, along with other people from the U.S. attorney’s office in Georgia, to brief us about the case,” Holder said in an interview. “As she left, Janet Reno and I turned to each other and said, ‘She’s a star.’ ”
“She was totally conversant with the facts,” Holder said. “She had a real knowledge of the law and a real good tactical sense about where this case ought to go, good predictions that were borne out about how ultimately it was going to be resolved. She had done her homework. She showed a keen sensitivity to the trauma that this had inflicted on the Atlanta region. She just was a star.”
When Holder later became attorney general, he appointed Yates, by then a U.S. attorney, to be vice chair of his advisory board, chaired by Loretta Lynch — now Holder’s replacement as attorney general. Over the next 18 months, it falls to those two women, both natives of the South, to execute the policy changes that Holder put in place.
After a meeting of officials around Lynch’s big conference table last week, a male staffer turned to Yates and said, “You realize, don’t you, that I’m the only male in the room,” she recalled.
“The most meaningful aspect of that is that I hadn’t even noticed,” Yates said.
Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children. She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.
She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies.
“Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”
“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”