WASHINGTON - President 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 H. 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."
Yates, 54, will start Jan. 10 as acting deputy attorney general, pending her Senate confirmation.
Although both are well-regarded and nonpolitical, 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 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, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, issued a joint statement praising Yates as an "exceptionally skilled attorney with a strong record of public service."
For her current post, Yates won confirmation by a voice vote 21/2 months after she was nominated. The Senate Judiciary Committee likewise supported her nomination for U.S. attorney without any recorded opposition.
Yates has been U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia since 2010, the first woman in the position. She oversees 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 current deputy, James M. Cole, is stepping down after four years.