Former acting US attorney general Sally Yates was traveling to catch a flight when she learned through news reports of president Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries.
She decided to instruct the US Department of Justice not to enforce the order, and, as a result, Trump fired her. Subsequent court rulings appear to have validated her choice. Today (May 25), a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision to halt most parts of the ban.
Yates’ initial refusal to carry out the order was a controversial choice, but one that resulted from a lifetime of reflection on her values, the long-time justice department attorney said in a speech to the graduating class at Harvard Law School on May 24.
“There wasn’t much time to examine the weighty constitutional law concepts at issue here or to craft the directive to the department,” Yates told graduates. “But I didn’t make the decision just within the 72 hours from the time I learned of the ban until the time I issued the directive. That decision was the result of what others had taught me over my entire 27 years with the justice department.”
Yates found herself at the type of junction graduates will inevitably encounter in their careers, she told the class: “an unexpected moment where the law and conscience intersected, and [where] a decision had to be made in a very short period of time.”
After reviewing the executive order in context of Trump’s past statements about Muslims, she came to the conclusion that it violated the justice department’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” as she wrote to the department’s lawyers at the time.
That was Yates’ first decision. The next choice she had to make was whether to resign rather than enforce the order, or to use whatever time she had left in her job (as an Obama appointee, she presumed Trump would replace her anyway) to oppose it.
“I believed then, and believe now, that while resigning would have protected my personal integrity, it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice,” Yates told the Harvard Law grads. “The Department of Justice is not just another law firm, and this wasn’t just any legal issue. It was about the core founding principle of religious freedom.”