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Reno, Janet (1938—)

Reno, Janet (1938—)

American lawyer who was the first woman appointed attorney general of the United States. Born in Miami, Florida, on July 21, 1938; eldest of four children of Henry Reno (a police reporter) and Jane (Wood) Reno (an investigative reporter); Cornell University, A.B. in chemistry, 1960; law degree from Harvard University Law School, 1963; never married; no children.

One of 16 women in class of 500 at Harvard Law School; became first woman to head county prosecutor's office in Florida (1978); became first woman appointed attorney general of the United States (1993) and served through two administrations and much controversy (1993–2001); inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York (autumn 2000).

Janet Reno, the first woman to be appointed attorney general of the United States, was born in Miami, Florida, on July 21, 1938, the eldest child of two idealistic, strong-minded, and highly individualistic parents. Her father Henry Reno was a Danish-born naturalized American who worked as a police reporter for The Miami Herald for 43 years until his death in 1967. Her mother Jane Wood Reno , with whom she was very close, worked as an investigative reporter for the Miami News. In the 1950s, Jane Reno testified before a U.S. Senate committee about her experience posing as a mother attempting to sell her baby on the black market. In addition, she wrestled alligators, read poetry, was named an honorary princess by the Miccosukee Indians, and built the family home by herself, from the ground up, with help from Henry in the evenings. With such examples before her, Janet Reno made her own mark as a pioneer in law enforcement, gaining both admirers and detractors during an often volatile tenure as the nation's "top cop" in the Clinton administration.

Reno grew up in Dade County, Florida, and attended public school there. After graduating from Cornell University in 1960 with a degree in chemistry, she entered Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 16 women in a class of 500. During her law school years, a prominent Miami law firm denied her a summer internship, stating bluntly that it was rejecting her because she was a woman. That same law firm would eagerly offer her a partnership 14 years later, but in the early 1960s the law profession was dominated by men.

After graduation in 1963, Reno moved back home to Miami to begin her law career with the firm of Brigham and Brigham, where she worked until 1967. She then went on to a junior partnership in her own law firm, Lewis and Reno, until 1971, when she received a political appointment as staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. During her year-long service there, she helped to draft a constitutional revision allowing a reorganization of the state court system. She ran for a seat in the state legislature the following year, but was defeated. Her disappointment was somewhat mitigated when she learned that Abraham Lincoln, whom she held in great respect, had also lost his first election. Instead of serving in the House, she spent 1973 as a counsel for the state senate's Criminal Justice Committee for the Revision of Florida's Criminal Code.

Reno's next job was in the state attorney general's office of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, the office that presides over Dade County and the Greater Miami area, the largest district in Florida. Unsure of what to do with Reno, Seymour Gelber, administrative assistant to the Dade County state attorney Richard Gerstein, gave her what he considered the make-work job of organizing a juvenile division within the prosecutor's office. Reno demonstrated her commitment, energy, and efficiency by putting together a juvenile court in two months, much to the surprise of her colleagues. In 1976, she returned to private practice with a Miami law firm. Two years later, when Gerstein stepped down from office, he recommended to Governor Reubin Askew that Reno be named his successor until the next election. With her appointment, Reno became the first woman to head a county prosecutor's office in Florida. She was elected to the position in the next election in 1978, receiving 74% of the vote. Despite being a Democrat in a heavily Republican county, she won reelection in the following four elections.

As the largest prosecutor's office in Florida, and the one in which the city of Miami was located, the Dade County office had jurisdiction over the most problems in the state. When Reno took over the office, the county was facing increases in drug trafficking and illegal immigration as well as rising racial tension. Although she became widely respected for her tough fair-mindedness and approachability, her tenure as chief prosecutor was seldom smooth. In her first term of office, in 1980, she was faced with severe criticism and unjust charges of racial bigotry from her mishandling of a case from the previous year, in which four white police officers had beaten Arthur McDuffie, an African-American insurance salesman who was unarmed and handcuffed, to death. Although the officers' guilt seemed clear, they were acquitted by an all-white jury, leading to rioting in the black Liberty City section of Miami that caused the loss of 18 lives and $200 million worth of property damage. Reno took the blame for losing an open-and-shut case, and her critics included not only the African-American community but also the U.S. attorney general, Benjamin R. Civiletti, and Florida governor, Bob Graham. The charges that affected Reno most deeply, however, were those of racism, and she spent the following months repairing the rift between herself and the African-American community. She attended African-American civic and social functions while also increasing the hiring of blacks and Latinos, and focused her energy on issues important to minorities. Her hard work paid off when some of her severest critics became, over time, some of her staunchest supporters and allies.

Through all the ups and downs of trying to maintain racial justice, Reno worked assiduously to improve the welfare of children. She reformed the juvenile justice system, aggressively prosecuting child-abuse cases and pursuing delinquent fathers for child support. These efforts earned her the respect of both women's rights groups and the black community, and even won her mention in a rap song. She also established an innovative drug court in which non-violent offenders without records were not automatically sent to jail, but were instead assigned to counseling, giving them responsibility, accountability, and skills, and reintegrating them into their communities.

The primary criticism leveled at Reno was that she failed to go after political corruption and drug trafficking with sufficient zeal. Law enforcement critics cited her willingness to plea bargain and statistics of low jail time imposed on offenders. Admirers countered this argument by noting that the federal authorities, to which she ceded a number of complex cases, had better resources for prosecution than the state.

After Bill Clinton became president of the United States in 1992, Reno was approached by his associates about becoming attorney general. At the time, her mother was seriously ill with lung cancer, and it was understood that Reno, who continued to live with and care for her mother, would not leave Florida or take on added responsibility while her mother needed her. Jane Reno died on December 21, 1992, and on February 11, 1993, Clinton formally nominated Reno for the position of attorney general, which she accepted.

Before Reno's nomination, two other women had been proposed for the position. Both Zoë Baird and Judge Kimba M. Wood had withdrawn themselves from nomination after reports of their personal employment of illegal immigrants had provoked much outcry and criticism. In his nomination of Reno, Clinton praised her "unquestioned integrity." "She's demonstrated throughout her career a commitment to principles that I want to see enshrined at the Justice Department," he said. "No one is above the law." (He would find his words confirmed a number of times over the following years, as Reno approved various investigations by independent counsels into his alleged illegal conduct.) During her confirmation hearing, she held her own with self-confidence and a clear grasp of the issues faced by law enforcement and the Justice Department, although she made clear to the committee her personal objections to the death penalty. She was confirmed unanimously by the Senate, and on March 12, 1993, was sworn in as the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general. After her swearing-in, Reno told reporters that she intended to ensure that

women seeking abortions would be protected from physical harassment by anti-abortion groups, making it a felony to obstruct business at abortion clinics. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act was passed the following year, providing criminal and civil sanctions for obstruction of, or interference with, a woman's access to abortion.

As attorney general, Reno stood firm in her belief that prison is not necessarily the best response to criminal acts, strongly supported the strict principles of due process and protection of the innocent, advocated for reformation and community reintegration of youthful offenders, and demonstrated concern about the elimination of sexual and racial discrimination and about protection of the environment. She also had charge of a number of extremely high-profile cases. In April 1993, not even two months after she became attorney general, she had to make one of the most difficult decisions of her career, regarding the situation at the Branch Davidian Compound outside of Waco, Texas. In February, four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had been killed and another twenty wounded while attempting to serve a search warrant for weapons violations on David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, a survivalist religious cult that included men, women and children. Koresh had barricaded himself and his well-armed followers inside the complex, threatening all who approached, and a 51-day standoff ensued. On April 19, Reno, convinced that the children inside the complex were being physically abused, sanctioned the Federal Bureau of Investigation to attack the compound with tear gas in order to force those inside to surrender and come out. The attack went badly awry, however, and the compound was set ablaze. (Controversy and conspiracy theories would linger about whether the fire had been set by Koresh himself or by incendiary devices used by the FBI.) In the ensuing inferno, some 86 people, including 17 children, were killed. Reno, clearly struggling with the horror, held a news conference shortly thereafter in which she took full responsibility, but not blame, for the tragedy. Her honesty and visible anguish were refreshing to an audience used to political finger-pointing and public-relations spins, and brought her much personal support and acclaim from the public. Nonetheless, the Waco incident cast a long shadow over Reno's years as attorney general, and the deaths of the cultists—particularly of the children—would remain a potent slur for her opponents.

Reno often chose to act strictly as called for by the law, rather than as called for by public or political opinion. For example, she declined to arrest Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman—linked to a plot to blow up the World Trade Center—before weighing all the evidence. Despite intense political pressure, she ordered him detained only after he attempted to flee the country. She supported Lani Guinier , nominated to head the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, even after the Clinton administration withdrew the nomination in the face of Republican attacks. Reno also appointed an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton for wrongdoing in an old real-estate transaction, even though she owed him her job. She continued to refer various, though not all, investigations of possible impropriety to independent counsels (finally seven in all), including the investigation of the president's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that eventually led to his impeachment trial.

Reno presided over several other difficult cases, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995. The bombing, which occurred on the second anniversary of the Waco fire, killed 169 people. Her personal opposition to the death penalty did not prevent federal prosecutors from seeking, and receiving, the death penalty for bomber Timothy McVeigh. Other terrorist bombings followed, both in the U.S. and overseas. In 1996, Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and continued working at the same pace while beginning to receive treatment for her illness. She was among those in the Justice Department and the FBI who came under fire for the protracted and eventually all but dropped investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Lee Ho's alleged theft of national security secrets. No doubt the most visible case in the latter part of her tenure, however, was that of Elián González, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who was found floating on an inner tube in the ocean off Miami in late November 1999.

The rescue of Elián by local Cuban-American fishermen began a lengthy, extraordinarily emotional saga that for months made front-page news around the world. He was one of only three survivors from a boat that had capsized while its occupants were fleeing Cuba; eleven more on the boat, including his mother, had drowned. The boy's extended family in Miami promptly claimed him, as did his father in Cuba. The custody battle that ensued involved the U.S. and Cuban governments, the U.S. court system, and much savvy use of the court of public opinion by both Elián's Cuban-American relatives and their supporters and by Fidel Castro. Huge daily rallies were held in Miami by the Cuban-American community to show support for keeping the boy in the United States, and politicians and pundits tripped over themselves in trying to uphold both the sanctity of the family (which dictated that he should be returned to his father in Cuba) and the sanctity of the fight against Communism (which demanded that he not be forced to grow up in Cuba). Reno focused on the legal issues: American custody and immigration laws. Negotiations between Reno, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner , and the Miami relatives dragged on. Tensions were high in the Cuban-American community in Miami, exacerbated by the city's mayor who, because of comments made, seemed to flout obedience to federal law. On April 22, 2000, federal agents staged a pre-dawn raid on the house of Elián's Miami relatives to reunite him with his father. Videotapes of the raid, in which the screaming child was yanked by an agent from the arms of a supporter while surrounded by agents armed with automatic weapons, were replayed endlessly on television and brought Reno a firestorm of criticism, particularly from the Cuban-American community and Republicans in Washington. "[T]ime had run out," she said in response. "I did until the final moments try to reach a voluntary solution." She later noted that she had "tried my level best to make sure we avoided this situation…. I'm satisfied with the result."

Reno dealt with the political fallout from the Elián González case with the sure confidence that the decision made had been the correct one under the law. While she was frequently criticized for foot-dragging during her tenure, supporters noted that this apparent indecision resulted from meticulous study of issues and a deliberate refusal to sacrifice the law to expediency (a policy perhaps reinforced by the early experience of Waco). She survived with equanimity repeated calls for her resignation from political opponents over the years, and gained a great deal of respect from the public for her integrity and independence from both political parties. Reno served until the end of the Clinton administration in January 2001, the longest term for any attorney general since 1829. "It's been a great adventure," she said of her years in Washington. "Now I'm going to go home and sit on my front porch." Shortly after she moved back home to Florida, a group of Cuban-Americans still angry about Elián held a protest outside her house. It was, she told reporters, "a great example of the First Amendment at work."


Axelrod, Alan, et al. Cops, Crooks, and Criminologists. Facts on File, 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1993. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1993.

Martin, Jean, ed. Who's Who of Women in the Twentieth Century. Crescent Books, 1995.

The Miami Herald. April 23, 2000; April 25, 2000; February 6, 2001.

The New York Times. January 20, 2001, p. A10; January 21, 2001, p. 19.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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