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Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates Delivers Keynote Address at the 10th National Prosecution Summit


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Karol [Mason], for that warm introduction and for everything you do at the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). 

I am continually amazed by how much good work happens at OJP – and especially within the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).  BJA serves as a vital link between the Department of Justice and our friends in state, local and tribal government – a link that’s as important now as ever before.  So a special thank you to BJA's director, Denise O’Donnell, for cultivating this very important bond, today and every day. 

I’d also like to recognize all of the law enforcement officers here in the room, including our exceptional Acting Director of ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), Thomas Brandon.  I’ve worked with a lot of great agents and officers during my career and I know how hard you all work and how deeply you care about the cause of justice.  As a career prosecutor, it’s easy enough to draft a search warrant.  The tough part is executing that warrant – at 6:00 a.m., in the dark, not knowing what’s on the other side of that door.  I think I speak for all the prosecutors in the room when I say, thank you – for your courage, your commitment and so much more. 

And finally, the prosecutors.  My fellow prosecutors.  It’s a privilege to be here with you.  In my new capacity as Deputy Attorney General, I give a lot of speeches now to a lot of groups.  But here, with you, I feel like I am with “my people.”  And I’m particularly grateful to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, who for 10 years have brought “my people” together for this important summit.  And it’s actually you – the prosecutors – who I want to speak about today – about the critical work prosecutors do and why we’re all so proud to do it.

As Karol mentioned, I’ve been a prosecutor for a long time.  But I didn’t set out to be a prosecutor.  In fact, I would imagine that contrary to many of you, I didn’t feel the calling in law school.  I started my legal career in a big firm in Atlanta.  I was there for a few years and I had a good experience there.  But I didn’t find the work as satisfying as I had hoped, so I thought I would give the U.S. Attorney’s Office a shot, with the full expectation that I would go back to the firm after a few years.  And so I set off for the Justice Department and, in retrospect, I was totally unprepared for what I would encounter there.

First, many people talk about the pressure of a big firm practice and those in private practice assume that it’s easier on the government side.  My experience was just the opposite.  First, the stakes are a lot higher as a prosecutor.  In private practice, or at least the private practice that I experienced, the lawyers were pretty much representing companies fighting over money.  Make no mistake, the money is important to the clients and often times it’s a whole lot of money, but in the big scheme of things, it’s just money.  No one is going to lose their liberty.  No child is going to grow up with a parent behind bars.  No victim is counting on you to hold accountable the person who robbed or raped or killed a family member.  So while all legal jobs require you to do your best work and vigorously represent the interests of your client, there is a whole lot more riding on how well you perform as a prosecutor.

Secondly, as a prosecutor, in all but the largest or most complex cases, you’re often handling the case on your own.  There’s not a team of lawyers to draft your briefs and triple-check your footnotes and there’s no one else responsible when things go wrong.  It’s up to you and your judgment.  I was a young associate in private practice, so to be honest, no client was really relying on my advice.  I might write a memo to a partner about the legal issues or even give my opinion on strategy, but in the end, someone else was going to be making that call.  And the pressure on me was to do a good job to impress the partner.  But as a prosecutor, we have real, not artificial, pressure.  Prosecutors generally aren’t writing memos or staying at work late to impress anyone in the office.  Prosecutors are staying late to get their work done and to get it done well.  I always have to chuckle when a defense attorney from a large, well-resourced defense firm with an army of associates on a case mentions the “vast resources” of the government.  While the overall resources may be vast, at least at the federal level, it sure doesn’t feel that way when you’re the one standing by the copy machine late at night making sure your exhibits are ready for the next day, or sitting at your computer drafting last minute responses to defense motions, even though you still have an opening to craft, or putting together your own exhibit binders.  And when you combine the amount of individual work required with the stakes involved, that’s real pressure.

So why do we do it?  Well, I can tell you why I do it.  Because, as corny as it sounds, we have the privilege of representing the people of the United States.  And this is indeed a privilege to treasure.  Think about it.  When you represent private clients, you pretty much have to take your clients as you find them.  It’s your ethical responsibility to represent their interests, regardless of whether you think they’re really right or whether you even like them.  But as a prosecutor, unless we believe that a defendant is in fact guilty and that it’s right and fair that he or she be charged, we don’t bring that case.  What other group of lawyers has that luxury?  What other group of lawyers has had the opportunity not simply to zealously represent the interests of an individual client, but to do what  is right and just and fair?  But with that privilege comes great responsibility.  The people of our country are counting on us to not only be the glue that holds together an orderly society; they are counting on us to do it in manner that engenders their trust and confidence.  We’re held to a higher standard than other lawyers.  And in my mind, that’s as it should be.  Because, in the famous words of Justice [George] Sutherland, a prosecutor is “The representative not of an ordinary party, but a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”

Over my 27 years as a prosecutor, as a Line Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA), Supervisor, U.S. Attorney and now as Deputy Attorney General, I have witnessed and been humbled by prosecutors’ commitment to that responsibility.  I have watched as prosecutors have spoken for victims who had no voice and who stood up for the vulnerable in our society so often overlooked. 

I remember a human trafficking case during my time as U.S. Attorney in Atlanta.  The defendants in that case had lured impoverished young women and girls from Mexico to the United States on a promise of marriage and jobs.  When the women arrived in the United States, they were forced into prostitution, with more than 20 men on their first night.  They were beaten and tortured, diminished and treated as animals.  Our prosecutors worked hard on that case.  They convicted the perpetrators, some of whom received 40 years in prison.  I will never forget talking with these young women after sentencing, where they had bravely stared down their assailants to testify.  They told me afterward about their newfound dignity, made possible not simply because the case was prosecuted, but because of the way it was prosecuted.  These women found dignity – in part – because our prosecutors treated them with dignity.  They told me that they had their lives back now.  Because of these prosecutors, the defendants will never be able to victimize others in this way again.  Because of these prosecutors, these young women, who had been so brutally abused, had gained the strength to overcome horrors that most of us can’t imagine and to reclaim their lives.  Prosecutors across the country do this kind of work every single day.  And because of the work you do, the weak, the powerless, the silenced victims in this country are not only given voice, they reclaim their sense of self. 

I have also been repeatedly humbled by prosecutors’ commitment to justice.  The prosecutors I know aren’t motivated by “winning” or amassing notches on their belts.  They don’t try to send everyone to prison for as long as possible.  They are motivated by their responsibility to enforce the law, to make their communities safe and to fairly administer justice.  And fairness and justice is what matters most of all. 

These aren’t just ethereal concepts.  I have seen prosecutors live this every day.  When I was U.S. Attorney, we learned that a sitting judge in our district had been using illegal drugs with a woman with whom he was involved.  Even more troubling, we learned that during the course of this relationship, the judge had become jealous of the relationship that this woman had with an African American man and he told the woman that he sentenced African American men more harshly than white men.  As you might imagine, we were stunned.  While the case was being prosecuted by main justice, we knew that regardless of the outcome of the criminal case against the judge, we had to do something about the potential impact of the judge’s stated racial bias.  So we gathered the supervisors of our office around the conference room table and considered what we should do.  As it stood, it was unlikely that these statements were going to be publicly revealed during the judge’s criminal case.  But to the great credit of the prosecutors in our office, everyone agreed that we had an obligation to publicly disclose what we had learned and to do everything that we could to ensure that defendants who had appeared before this judge had been treated fairly.  So we publicly announced what we had learned about the judge’s statements and also announced that anyone who had a case before the judge after the time of the alleged statements would get an automatic “do-over.”  We agreed to have their case heard again by another judge.  And because we recognized that this kind of racial animus doesn’t arise overnight, we announced that, if requested, we would review the case of any defendant who had appeared before this judge, regardless of the timing, for any evidence of racial bias.  As you might expect, this was a huge undertaking.  Going back to review trial transcripts and sentencings from years-old cases was enormously time consuming.  But the remarkable part about this is that when we needed to have AUSAs review the transcripts, we didn’t once have to assign a case.  AUSAs raised their hands and volunteered.  They volunteered to take on this tedious and difficult work, on top of everything else they were doing, because they were committed to ensuring that the public had confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system.  They weren’t looking for stats – they were looking for justice. 

As impressive as this is, it’s entirely consistent with the day-to-day devotion to justice that I’ve seen from the prosecutors I’ve known over all these years.  The prosecutors I know don’t play hide the ball or look to read their discovery obligations as narrowly as possible.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  As I watched prosecutors in our office agonize over whether they had tracked down every possible shred of exculpatory evidence or impeaching evidence, I often wished the public could see the lengths they went to ensure that they didn’t just meet their ethical obligations, but that they exceeded them. 

This is made increasingly hard in an environment where it seems at least some defense counsel have made allegations of prosecutorial misconduct a standard litigation strategy, where some defense counsel seek to use that wonderful Justice Sutherland quote as a weapon rather than as a reflection of who we are and what we stand for.  Let me be clear, I have absolutely no tolerance for prosecutors who shirk their ethical obligations, discovery-related or otherwise.  I believe that we can and should be held to a higher standard than other lawyers – and if you don’t like that, you shouldn’t be a prosecutor.  But it’s because I believe that the overwhelming majority of prosecutors honor this obligation as one of the most fundamental parts of their job, that I take great exception to irresponsibility throwing around allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.  Prosecutors are in these jobs because we care about our solemn obligation to seek justice and when someone unfairly impugns that commitment, it strikes at the core of who we are. 

I’m proud to be a prosecutor.  I’m proud to be a part of a profession that holds those who violate our law accountable, that makes our communities safer, that stands up for victims and that, above all else, seeks justice.  At the Department of Justice, we are proud every day to be your colleagues.  We are proud to stand with you and beside you on the side of justice as we seek to advance the values that all of you have spent your lives defending. 

Thank you.  

Updated November 17, 2015