Sally Yates gave a fiery and at times very personal speech at the Harvard Law School graduation ceremony on May 24th, and in that speech she explained her decision to refuse to defend President Trump’s executive order that issued a travel ban to seven Muslim-majority nations. At the time of her decision, Yates was the acting Attorney General, but her decision caused Trump to immediately fire her. She explained to the graduating class that her choice was based on a moment when her conscience intersected with the law.
Since the events that led to her firing, Yates has been transformed into something of a martyr-figure for the Democratic party, and to the Republicans who support Trump, she was nothing more than another roadblock who tried to prevent Trump from doing exactly what he wanted to do. In a strange way, both sides are correct.
Yates was not supposed to have an important stint as the acting AG. While she was leading the Department of Justice, nothing was supposed to change from what she called the ‘status quo’. According to one member of her staff, the time would be ripe for long and relaxing lunch breaks with little worry about the office.
During the graduation ceremony at Harvard where Yates gave her speech, she relayed that those sorts of unexpected moments often arise when it seems as if nothing could possibly happen. They don’t give warning, and they don’t provide time to prepare. That is exactly what happened when she first heard of the executive order travel ban while traveling home several months ago. She and the rest of the Justice Department had not heard of the ban prior to that announcement, yet they would soon be forced to defend the legality of the order in both federal and state courts. It wasn’t long before Yates realized she would have to decide whether or not the executive order was constitutionally sound.
It was at that moment that she realized she couldn’t let pressure from her peers or superiors stop her from doing what was right. Her conscience intersected with the law as she was meant to interpret it, and the executive order came up lacking.
In most cases, the Justice Department will automatically defend the actions taken by the president, and the Office of Legal Counsel within the Justice Department claimed that the ban was constitutional. However, Yates realized that the ban was given specifically to prevent a specific religious group from entering the country, not just individuals from those seven nations. That completely changed the legality of the issue, and the Office of Legal Counsel didn’t take those literal words into account when they declared the order constitutional.
At first, Yates thought she might resign instead of having to make the decision to defend or deny the order from Trump. Using the power of hindsight, many have said that she should have simply resigned, which would have saved her the trouble and prevented an issue with the president. Yates argued that would have only pushed the decision onto whomever took her place, which wasn’t something she was prepared to do. Not only that, but she felt it wouldn’t have helped the actual issue, which was that the executive order did not meet constitutionality.
Yates said at the Harvard graduation ceremony that she was making the speech so the students would understand the importance of standing by your convictions, even in the face of scrutiny or pressure. She told those students that taking the safe course isn’t always the right answer, especially when it means losing your personal integrity and sense of conscience.