Courts & Crime

Obama nominates Georgia attorney for No. 2 at Justice Department

President Barack Obama on Monday announced his intention to nominate Georgia-based U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates for the key position of deputy attorney general, setting the stage for a history-making duo atop the Justice Department.

If the Republican-controlled Senate next year confirms both Yates and Obama’s nominee as attorney general, Brooklyn-based U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, it would be the first time women hold the Justice Department’s top two positions.

“Over the years, I have come to know, admire and rely on Sally as an essential leader of the U.S. Attorney community,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “As a longtime career prosecutor, she has handled a wide range of complex and high-profile cases with remarkable skill and poise.”

The 54-year-old Yates will start Jan. 10 as acting deputy attorney general, pending her Senate confirmation.

Although both are well-regarded and non-political, Lynch and Yates will confront a Capitol Hill obstacle course when the 114th Congress convenes in January. Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including potential presidential aspirant Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have already pledged to press Obama’s nominees hard on the president’s immigration policies, especially his use of executive authority to defer some deportations.

“The president has no authority to ignore or rewrite the law,” Cruz said earlier this month, foreshadowing his posture during upcoming confirmation hearings. “In so doing, the president violates his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”

Nonetheless, in a positive sign for Yates’ prospects, Georgia’s two Republican senators, Sen. Johnny Isakson and outgoing Sen. Saxby Chambliss, issued a joint statement praising Yates as an “exceptionally skilled attorney with a strong record of public service.”

For her current position, Yates won confirmation by a voice vote 2 1/2 months after she was nominated. The Senate Judiciary Committee likewise supported her nomination for U.S. attorney without any recorded opposition.

Yates has served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia since 2010 and is the first woman to hold the position. She currently oversees a staff of about 95 lawyers and 80 support personnel.

It would be a big jump to the Justice Department, which has about 116,000 full-time employees. The deputy attorney general frequently has responsibility for overseeing day-to-day operations of the sprawling department.

The current deputy, James M. Cole, is stepping down after four years in the post.

“It’s a very challenging job,” Cole said Monday. “It involves virtually every issue that comes into the department” and entails “an incredible number of meetings.”

Yates, a University of Georgia graduate and a 1986 graduate of the university’s law school, has served as a federal prosecutor for more than two decades, following a stint in private practice with the Atlanta-based firm King & Spalding. Her father was a judge, and one grandfather served on the Georgia Supreme Court.

She was the lead prosecutor of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, who in 1996 planted pipe bombs that killed one and injured 111 others in Atlanta. For a number of years, Yates oversaw all of the office’s white-collar crime prosecutions.

“Sally is an aggressive and professional prosecutor,” Atlanta-based attorney L. Lin Wood said by email. “Her integrity and work ethic will serve the public extremely well in Washington, D.C.”

Wood represented the late Richard Jewell, who had been falsely linked by law enforcement leaks to the Atlanta bombing. Wood said he and Jewell “deeply appreciated the hard work, diligence and competency” subsequently shown by Yates in her successful prosecution of Rudolph.

Yates has served as vice chairwoman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. She has received numerous awards with the Department of Justice, including the Urban League Champion of Justice Award and the Attorney General’s John Marshall Award.

“I’ve been very fortunate here to have been able to handle a wide variety of cases,” Yates told the Gainesville Times for a 2010 profile, adding that she stayed in the office “longer than I ever anticipated . . . because of the satisfaction that comes from being on the side of justice.”

Yates’ husband, J. Comer Yates, is a lawyer who works as executive director of the Atlanta Speech School. In Yates’ latest financial disclosure statement, she reported owning stock shares worth more than $1.5 million in a handful of companies, including Coca-Cola and Equifax.