One of the most popular United States attorneys general in recent times, Janet Reno (born 1938) was identified as a major figure in the Clinton administration. With 15 years of experience as a state attorney in Florida, Reno sought new frontiers for the Justice Department, which is the most powerful department in the Cabinet in terms of effecting social change.
Janet Reno, the 78th attorney general of the United States and the first woman ever to hold the nation's top law enforcement job, was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami, Florida. The eldest of the four children of journalists Henry and Jane (Wood) Reno, she grew up in a rather unconventional middle-class family in South Dade County. Her father, a Danish immigrant who is reported to have changed his surname from Rasmussen to one he selected from a map of Nevada, was a police reporter for the Miami Herald for 43 years before his death in 1967. Her mother, an investigative reporter for the now defunct Miami News, was described at her death in 1992 as an eccentric intellectual who wrestled alligators, read poetry, befriended the Seminole Indians, and built the family homestead on the edge of the Everglades with her own hands. It has been said that Janet Reno was deeply affected by her parents' strong attachment to the reporter's credo "to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted."
A product of the Dade County Public Schools, Reno attended Cornell University, where she earned an A.B. degree in Chemistry in 1960. Following graduation she enrolled at Harvard University Law School, becoming one of 16 women in a class of 500. As evidence of the road-blocks encountered by women in the legal profession, in 1962 Reno was denied a summer job "because she was a woman" by a prominent Miami law firm that 14 years later would offer her a partnership. In 1963, however, with a law degree in hand, she entered a profession that was largely dominated by men and unfriendly to women interlopers.
Professional Background in Florida
Reno's earliest employment in the legal profession was with the Miami firm of Brigham and Brigham (1963-1967); this stint was followed by a junior partnership with the firm of Lewis and Reno (1967-1971). In 1971, adding political experience to her professional background, she was named staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives (1971-1972), where she helped draft a revision of the state constitution that would make possible the reorganization of the court system in the state. In the spring of 1973 she served as counsel for the Florida Senate's Criminal Justice Commission for Revision of the Criminal Code. These experiences were followed by a job as assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit of Florida (1973-1976). In 1976 Reno returned to the private practice of law when she accepted a partnership in the firm of Steel Hector and Davis (1976-1978). Two years later Florida Governor Reubin Askew appointed Reno state attorney for Dade County, the first woman ever named to the position of top prosecutor for the county in Florida. Reno held the position for 15 years until nominated for the position of attorney general of the United States by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
As Dade County prosecutor, Reno was criticized for several early failures during her tenure. She was blamed for failing to obtain a conviction in a highly publicized case against four white Miami police officers accused in the beating death of an unarmed and handcuffed African-American insurance salesman. Riots followed in African-American sections of Miami, which resulted in deaths and destruction of property. Critics also cited a below-average rate of convictions and blamed her for what they deemed a lack of aggressiveness in pursuing public corruption cases at the local level, charging that she too often deferred to federal prosecutors in the investigation and prosecution of such cases. Reno's successes in prosecuting certain violent crimes and her fearlessness in dealing with Miami's crime problem helped to promote her reputation as a tough prosecutor and to win approval from opponents. She received praise from some in the minority communities for her efforts to use the prosecutor's office to tackle social ills affecting society.
A Lawyer for the People
Described as part social worker and part crime fighter who was "equally dogged about both," Reno advocated a holistic approach to law enforcement, a position that was not popular across all political spectrums. Juvenile justice emerged as her prime focus of reform. She became known for attempts to employ innovative alternatives to the incarceration of youth and to deal with troubled youths at the earliest possible age. Stressing the linkages between a nurturing childhood and the prevention of crime, she is said to have "identified with the problem of fighting crime in the early years and … struggled to get the resources for children and education."
She aggressively prosecuted child abuse cases; pursued delinquent fathers for child support; introduced innovations in drug courts; established a domestic crime unit; and worked with social agencies to provide nurturing environments for abandoned crack babies, to set up shelters for battered women, and to organize centers for the assessment of children experiencing or observing violence. In her opinion, "recreating families and community [was] the only way to break the cycle of poverty, ignorance, and rage that causes the everyday tragedies—child abuse, rape, domestic violence, drug addiction, senseless murder and mayhem— that afflict society."
Unanimously confirmed as U.S. attorney general by the Senate after smooth hearings, Reno took office on March 12, 1993. In this position she saw to the enforcement of policies on crime, race relations, immigration, corruption, and other legal issues that affect nearly every aspect of American life. In the area of crime and law enforcement, Reno's emphases represented a reorientation from the strategies of increased incarceration and rampant prison building stressed by Republican predecessors in the office. She focused on broad anticrime programs involving rehabilitation and treatment as well as gun control and hiring of additional police.
She argued that the Justice Department must see that the power of the federal government is harnessed in a way that ensures protection for the innocent and accords strict principles of due process and fair play in the prosecution and conviction of the guilty. She argued also for broad court reforms that provide ordinary citizens greater access to the justice system. Seeking to "revolutionize law enforcement (as well as) how America thinks about crime," Reno talked about addressing the root causes of crime and violence. She criticized mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenses and advocated alternative sentences to permit the use of prison cells for dangerous offenders and persistent recidivists as well as major drug traffickers and distributors. She was reported to be personally opposed to the death penalty.
A National Agenda for Reform
The heart of Reno's agenda involves programs for the nation's children. As attorney general she pushed for reforms that would provide assistance to troubled youths at the earliest possible age, believing in the possibilities for redirecting children from careers in crime. For the youthful offender the idea was to use a measured carrot and stick approach that eliminated penal restrictions as increased responsibility was assumed for work, conduct, and education and that provided for coordinated reintegration into the community.
Reno advocated developing programs in the public schools that teach peaceful conflict resolution and proposed the development of teams of social workers, police officers, and public health officials to address the range of issues affecting youth. Reno's other concerns ranged broadly from commitments to aggressive civil rights enforcement in order to promote diversity and economic equity to the elimination of discrimination based on sexual preferences to tougher enforcement of environmental laws. The basic challenge Reno faced in her assignment involved translating her populist goals into real and substantive changes in the practice of law enforcement and the administration of justice.
As the first woman ever to hold the office of Attorney General, Janet Reno continues to make her mark in United States history. Her involvement in both the Branch Davidian seize in Waco, Texas and the Oklahoma City Bombing have brought her worldwide recognition.
Excellent coverage of Attorney General Janet Reno's personal background, law enforcement philosophy, and proposed programs is provided in a variety of news magazines and professional journals. These include the following: Elaine Shannon, "The Unshakable Janet Reno," Vogue (August 1993); W. John Moore, "The Big Switch," National Journal (June 19, 1993); and Stephanie B. Goldberg and Henry J. Reske, "Talking with Attorney Janet Reno," ABA Journal (June 1993). See also Paul Anderson's Janet Reno—Doing the Right Thing (1994). □
Janet Reno was the seventy-fifth attorney general of the United States and the first woman ever to serve as attorney general, the nation's top law-enforcement job. She sought new frontiers for the Justice Department, which is led by the attorney general and is a powerful force for creating social change.
A Florida family
Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami, Florida. The first of four children of journalists Henry and Jane Reno, she grew up in South Dade County, Florida. Her father, a Danish immigrant, wrote for the Miami Herald for forty-three years. As a police reporter, covering news of the police department and local crime, he became friends with judges and law enforcement personnel. This world became familiar to Reno at an early age. Her mother, a reporter for the Miami News, is remembered as an offbeat intellectual who wrestled alligators, read poetry, and befriended the Seminole Indians. She built with her own hands the Reno family home on the edge of Florida's swampy Everglades region.
Growing up near the Everglades, Reno developed a love of the outdoors. She was fond of canoeing, camping, and athletics. She imagined she might become a baseball player, a doctor, or a marine biologist. As an adult, however, her ambitions turned toward matters of justice and law.
Becoming a lawyer
After graduating from high school, Reno attended Cornell University, earning a degree in chemistry in 1960. Following Cornell she enrolled at Harvard University Law School, becoming one of only sixteen women in a class of five hundred. The legal profession was full of obstacles for women in those times, and in 1962 Reno was denied a summer job at a well-known Miami law firm "because she was a woman." The next year, however, she entered the legal profession with her law degree in hand.
From 1963 to 1971 Reno worked as a lawyer for two Miami law firms. In 1971 she gained political experience when she joined the staff of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. In the spring of 1973 she provided legal assistance to the Florida Senate on a project to revise the state's system of rules and regulations for criminal procedures. These experiences were followed by a job as assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit of Florida. She worked for the Judiciary Circuit (the term refers to state court activities within a particular district) from 1973 to 1976.
In 1978 Reno was appointed as state attorney for Dade County. This made her the first woman ever named to the position of top prosecutor for a county in Florida. Reno held the position for fifteen years until she was nominated as U.S. attorney general by President Bill Clinton (1946–) in 1993.
Dade County's top lawyer
As Dade County prosecutor, Reno was the top lawyer responsible for prosecuting and winning cases on behalf of the county and its people. She was criticized for early failures, but later her successes in prosecuting violent crimes, and her fearlessness in dealing with Miami's crime problem, helped win her a reputation as a tough prosecutor.
During this time, Reno made juvenile justice a focus of her work. She became known for her attempts to find alternatives to the imprisonment of young people. She also tried to find ways that the state could deal with troubled youth at the earliest possible age. She stressed the links between children experiencing care and love and the prevention of crime. She looked for opportunities to fight crime by building resources for children and education.
On March 12, 1993, Reno was confirmed as U.S. attorney general by the U.S. Senate. In this position she saw to the enforcement of national policies on crime, race relations, immigration, corruption, and other legal issues affecting many aspects of American life. In the area of crime and law enforcement, she focused on broad programs involving efforts to help criminals reform and to provide treatment for drug offenders as a means of stopping crime. She also supported gun control and the hiring of additional police. In addition, Reno argued for broad reforms to provide ordinary citizens with greater access to the courts and justice system. She stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of crime and violence.
The heart of Reno's agenda involved programs for children. As attorney general she pushed for reforms that would provide assistance to troubled youths as early as possible, believing in the possibilities for turning children away from careers in crime. Reno's other concerns included aggressive civil rights enforcement, ending discrimination (unequal treatment) based on sexual preferences, and tougher enforcement of environmental laws. The basic challenge she faced in her work involved translating these broad social goals into real and effective changes in law enforcement and the justice system.
A controversial figure
Reno's commitment was admired by many during her term as attorney general. However, she was also a controversial figure. Reno was severely criticized for the Justice Department's actions during a crisis in Waco, Texas, in 1993, when an extreme religious sect called the Branch Davidians became involved in a standoff with law enforcement officials. After negotiations between the two sides broke down, federal agents stormed the grounds and building in which the Branch Davidians were housed, and dozens of the sect's members died after setting the building on fire. Reno also became a target of Republicans in Congress who accused her of failing to investigate vigorously when members of the Clinton administration were charged with illegal practices. At the same time, some members of the Clinton administration felt that Reno was too quick to cave in to Republican demands. Although President Clinton reappointed Reno to a second term in 1996, it was reported that he did so reluctantly.
In 2000 Reno again drew fire over her handling of the case of Elian Gonzalez Brotons, a six-year-old refugee who was living with relatives in Miami after his mother drowned while bringing him by boat to Florida from Cuba. After months of negotiations and efforts to resolve his case in court, Reno ordered federal agents to seize the boy from his relatives' home and return him to his father, who was living in Cuba. Many Cuban Americans, especially in Miami, were outraged by Reno's order.
Despite this controversy, Reno returned to Florida with political ambitions in 2001, when her term as attorney general ended. In September 2001 she announced that she would run as a Democrat for governor of the state, but she lost in a close primary race to attorney Bill McBride on September 10, 2002.
Reno suffers from Parkinson's disease, an illness that attacks the nervous system. As a highly visible and active public figure combating a severe illness, she has inspired others who live with Parkinson's and other serious diseases. Her achievements as a woman in the male-dominated legal field were also honored when she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in October 2000.
For More Information
Anderson, Paul. Janet Reno—Doing the Right Thing. New York: J. Riley, 1994.
President bill clinton appointed Janet Reno to be U.S. attorney general on February 11, 1993. She was his third choice for the post. The first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, Reno previously served as the state attorney for Florida's Dade County, which includes Miami. During her first term as attorney general, Reno sought stricter gun control laws, lobbied for funding for more local police officers, and worked with communities to develop more effective methods of crime prevention.
Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami, Florida. Her parents were journalists who worked for Miami daily newspapers. Reno attended public schools in Dade County and enrolled at Cornell University in 1956. After her graduation in 1960, she attended Harvard Law School, one of only 16 women in a class of more than 500 students. She graduated in 1963 but found that her gender made it difficult to find work as a lawyer in Miami.
In 1971, Reno was named staff director of the Florida House Judiciary Committee. In that position, she oversaw the revision of the Florida court system. In 1973, she was named counsel for the state senate's committee that is responsible for revising the Florida Criminal Code. That same year, she accepted a position in the Dade County state attorney's office. She quickly succeeded in organizing a juvenile division within the office.
Reno left the state attorney's office in 1976 to become a partner in a private Miami law firm. She was drawn back into government service in 1978 when the Dade County state attorney stepped down before the end of his term. Appointed to be state attorney, Reno was elected to a full term in November 1978, and the voters returned her to office four more times.
As state attorney, Reno managed an office of 940 employees with an annual budget of $30 million and a yearly docket of 120,000 cases. She established a career-criminal unit that worked with federal officials and local law enforcement to arrest and convict career criminals and to sentence them to substantial prison time. Reno also helped establish the Miami drug court, which has been a model for courts in the United States. The drug court provides alternative punishment for nonviolent offenders who have a drug-abuse problem. More than half of those offenders who have completed the program have remained free of drugs.
Reno also focused attention on prevention programs that enabled children to grow in a safe, constructive environment. She helped to reform the juvenile justice system and pursued delinquent fathers for child support payments.
As U.S. attorney general, Reno entered the public spotlight almost immediately. On February 28, 1993, approximately 100 agents from the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms
(ATF) raided the Waco, Texas, compound of the members of the Branch Davidian religious cult, who were led by David Koresh. The agents and cult members exchanged gunfire. Four ATF agents died, six cult members were killed, and 16 others were wounded.
After the unsuccessful raid, a long stand-off ensued. Reno oversaw the negotiations between
Koresh and agents of the federal bureau of investigation (FBI). For 51 days, negotiations continued, but, in April, the FBI alerted Reno that cult members were planning a mass suicide. Although Koresh had released some children, many remained in the compound.
Reno ordered an assault on the compound, which took place on April 19, 1993. Cult members started fires in three locations, which soon engulfed the wooden buildings. Approximately 86 cult members, including 17 children, died that day. Reno, expressing anguish over the loss of life, particularly the children's lives, took full responsibility for the decision to storm the compound. She came under heavy attack for having approved the plan, which she defended as having been based on the information known at the time. She conceded, however, that based on the results, it obviously had been the wrong decision.
Reno became embroiled in another major national controversy in 1999 and 2000 after fishermen found a six-year-old boy named Elian Gonzalez floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. The boy's mother and stepfather had tried to flee Cuba, but both died after their boat capsized. The boy's relatives in Miami wanted him to stay in the United States, but his father, who remained in Cuba, demanded his return.
For four months during 2000, the nation debated whether the boy should be returned to Cuba. Reno and the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) maintained that the boy should be returned to his father, but allowed the courts to make the decision. When a federal court ruled that the boy should be returned to his father, Reno and the INS demanded that the relatives turn the boy over to authorities. The relatives refused, and Reno eventually ordered armed federal agents to enter the home of the relatives who were keeping the boy. Elian was eventually returned to his father in Cuba. Reno came under fire for a number of reasons during the controversy, most notably due to her decision to use armed guards to gain custody of the boy.
Reno's greatest achievement during the first Clinton administration was helping the president win congressional approval of the 1994 crime bill, the most substantial crime legislation in U.S. history (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796). The $30.2 billion measure was a complex mixture of government spending and changes to previous criminal law. It authorized the funding of social programs, the hiring of 100,000 police officers nationwide, and the building of new prisons. Reno applauded the increased legal protections afforded to women and children under the violence against women act of 1994, which was contained in the bill, although, in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The national rifle association had protested Reno's efforts to ban 19 assault-style firearms, yet Congress included this controversial measure in the final bill. The bill also prohibited gun purchases by people who are subject to court restraining orders because of domestic violence.
Reno has traveled throughout the United States, visiting with local officials to encourage crime prevention programs and law enforcement methods such as community policing.
"Nothing can make me madder than lawyers who don't care about others."
Reno served two full terms as attorney general, stepping down at the end of the Clinton administration in 2001. In September 2001, she made national headlines again when she announced that she would run for governor of Florida in the 2002 election. A year later, she lost the Democratic nomination in the race to political newcomer Bill McBride.
Anderson, Paul. 1994. Janet Reno: Doing the Right Thing. New York: J. Wiley.
"Exit Interview: Janet Reno." 2001. MacNeil/Lehrer News-hour. PBS. Available online at <www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june01/reno_1-18.html> (accessed November 21, 2003).
Powell, H. Jefferson. 1999. The Constitution and the Attorneys General. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.