As we old timers like to put it to the youngsters, I’m old enough to remember when President Clinton nominated Janet Reno to become the first female Attorney General. At the time – as VP Biden would say – that was a BFD. And then last month, Loretta Lynch was sworn in as the first African American female to hold that position.
I recently wrote about Vanita Gupta (right above), who is currently serving as the Acting Director of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. Yesterday, Evan McMorris-Santoro wrote a great profile on the woman in the number two spot at DOJ – Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (middle above).
Apparently Yates has one major job these days:
As real momentum builds on Capitol Hill to rewrite sentencing laws with the goal of refocusing prosecution and lowering the prison population — an issue of prime importance President Obama in the final months of his presidency — Yates is among the top administration aides helping the process along on Capitol Hill. She meets regularly with the members of the Senate in both parties attempting to hash out a bipartisan criminal justice compromise they can pass before the end of the year.
As that effort continues, Yates will continue to be among the most prominent administration faces pushing the Obama team position…
Yates has drawn the praise of advocacy groups who say she’s able to connect with Republicans in a way the Justice Department often wasn’t able to when Holder was in charge, due in part to GOP rhetoric that cast Holder as the biggest villain in the Obama administration.
Criminal justice is a top policy goal for Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, and Yates also works closely with top department officials to help push unilateral changes to prosecution procedure set down first by Holder and now by Lynch. She also spends a lot of time talking to working prosecutors, the group that has expressed the greatest skepticism toward the sweeping changes pushed by criminal justice advocates and the administration.
Balancing the demands of politicians on Capitol Hill, criminal justice reform activists and working prosecutors is a pretty tall task. In terms of what she brings to the job, McMorris-Santoro provides this summary of her previous work:
During her career first as a deputy prosecutor and later as the first woman U.S. Attorney running the district based in Atlanta, Yates racked up big victories. She helped put the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, away for four consecutive life sentences and led prosecutions on a nearly a dozen Atlanta officials on corruption charges in the mid-2000s, including Democratic mayor Bill Campbell. She led the successful prosecution of three Atlanta cops who killed 92 year-old Kathryn Johnson, who was black, in a so-called “no-knock” drug raid that mistakenly targeted her home. Basically, if you can imagine a prosecutor prosecuting it, Yates has done it.
Here’s how she sums up her commitment to this task:
For Yates, the movement is a personal one.
“At the risk of sounding really corny now, I’m a career prosecutor. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I believe in holding people responsible when they violate the law,” she said. “But our sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people who are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”
Previously I’ve suggested that there is a role for feminism to play in police reform. I will say once again that it is not simply a matter of gender. But with women of the caliber of Loretta Lynch, Sally Yates and Vanita Gupta at the helm, it will be interesting to see how they impact the work of the Department of Justice.