Sally Quillian Yates believes the first trial she ever tried in front of a jury may have been her best.
It was the late 1980s, and Yates then was a junior associate with Atlanta law firm King & Spalding when she was tapped to try an civil case in Barrow County. The trial pitted the county’s first landowning African-American family against a developer over a disputed title to 6 acres of land.
At her side during that trial to whisper advice was Charles Kirbo, who a few years earlier was an informal adviser to President Jimmy Carter. It took convincing a member of the notorious Dixie Mafia to testify in court for the plaintiffs, but Yates won the case.
“An all-white jury came back and did the right thing, and returned the 6 acres to our client,” Yates recalled.
The case, Yates said, gave her client a sense of trust in the judicial system the client never felt before.
“That is the most meaningful case I could ever have,” she said. “It gave me a taste for the value of being on the right side of truth and justice, of believing in your cause. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s hard to go back to representing any old client.”
Not too long after, Yates left private practice and joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia at the encouragement of another one of her mentors, King & Spalding partner Griffin Bell, who had ultimately overseen the office as U.S. attorney general under Carter.
Late last year, President Barack Obama nominated Yates, 49, to be the newest U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, which includes divisions in Atlanta, Gainesville, Rome and Newnan. She was confirmed by the Senate last month.
“She is absolutely a top-notch prosecutor and I don’t think President Obama could have made a better decision,” said Emory University General Counsel Kent Alexander, who served as U.S. attorney for the district in the 1990s and worked with Yates for several years. “She’s been in the courtroom, she’s managed, and she’s led, and most importantly, she has excellent judgement.
Bottom line, she’s a star.”
Yates, an Atlanta native, comes from strong legal lineage. Her father, Kelley Quillian, was a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals, and his father, Joseph Quillian, was a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court.
But Yates may be most proud of her grandmother’s achievements in the legal profession. Tabitha Quillian was among the first women admitted to the bar in Georgia, in a time when graduation from law school was not required if you could pass the bar exam.
Yates graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law magna cum laude in 1986, and after a few years with King and Spalding, started prosecuting fraud cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1989.
Over the years her name was most closely linked in the news to the corruption trial of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who was ultimately convicted of tax evasion, and the case against Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole.
“I’ve been very fortunate here to have been able to handle a wide variety of cases,” Yates said. She said she stayed in the office “longer than I ever anticipated ... because of the satisfaction that comes from being on the side of justice.”
“I’m a firm believer that how we go about doing our job here and how we represent the people in an honorable way is much more important than what the ultimate resolution of the case is.”
Yates said public corruption cases still hold a “special place in my heart.”
“I think it oftentimes falls to the U.S. Attorney’s office and the feds to be the ones looking out for cases on the corruption front, and to do it in a vigorous way that inspires confidence.”
But Yates’ office prosecutes much more than that. Drug trafficking has become one of the biggest priorities since the metro Atlanta area displaced Miami as the East Coast hub for the Mexican drug cartels, Yates said.
“The cases we’re doing now involve hundreds and thousands of kilos of cocaine, not five and 10,” Yates said. “It’s incredibly important for us to stay on that, not only because of the distribution of the drugs, but the violence that comes with the cartels as well.”
Yates said gangs are a challenge, “and I know certainly that’s something that the Gainesville area has felt.”
“We are working with our state and local partners to try to be able to aggressively prosecute gang cases so we can send the most violent offenders to prison for a long time, but also create a significant deterrent effect,” she said. “A lot of these are young defendants who are not only victimizing the community but ruining their own lives.”
Sex trafficking, child exploitation, weapons cases and other violent crimes are also priorities for the office. And the district holds the dubious distinction of having the most bank failures in the country, some of which might warrant criminal fraud prosecutions.
“It falls to us to get to the bottom of it quickly, so that we can do what we can to restore confidence in our financial system,” she said.
Yates notes that her office has 89 prosecutors for a district of about 6.5 million people, so it has to be selective about what criminal cases it takes for federal prosecution.
“We really have to pick and choose the cases we’re prosecuting to try to have the greatest impact on the district, both in terms of getting offenders off the streets and sending a deterrence message to stem the tide.”
Yates said she’s approaching her new job “very gratefully, and recognizing I have been entrusted with a really sacred privilege here to represent the people of this district.
“I’ll do everything I can to ensure that we’re making it a safer place to live, and that we seeking justice in a fair and ethical manner that would make the citizens proud.”