Janet Reno: First female attorney general and a legacy of independence

While the former attorney general faced criticism for controversies that include the raid of the Branch Davidian compound and seizure of Elián González, she was also known for her staunch independence.

Dennis Cook/AP/File
Former US Attorney General Janet Reno testifies before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2004. Ms. Reno, the first woman to serve as US Attorney General, died Monday.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno, who died at 78 early Monday, had said she become a lawyer for one simple reason.

"I didn’t want people to tell me what to do."

This fierce independence encapsulated Ms. Reno’s tenure as the first woman to lead the Justice Department. She became known for her commitment to protecting children throughout her lifetime but also for legal controversies that clouded over the Clinton administration she served for nearly eight years.

The longest serving attorney general in a century, Reno was embroiled in controversy throughout her tenure. From the raid of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, to the seizure of 5-year-old Elián González, Reno was criticized for federal use of force. But the self-described "awkward old maid" also built a reputation for her staunch independence, placing the law above all else and leaving a legacy for women to follow.

"She was a very powerful force for lawfulness," Walter Dellinger III, a Duke University law professor who served as solicitor general during Reno’s tenure, told The Washington Post. "She was always challenging to make sure there was a sound legal basis for what people were doing. And she was adamant about separating the department from politics."

Reno was named attorney general in 1993, after former President Bill Clinton said he planned to nominate the first woman to the post (his first two choices – also women – were withdrawn because they had hired illegal immigrants as nannies). Reno served until 2001, leading the Justice Department through controversies that included the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

Reno was a native Floridian, raised in a cedar-plank house built on the edge of the Everglades by her mother, an investigative reporter for the defunct Miami News. After Reno graduated from Cornell University in New York, she became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School’s Class of 1963.

She returned to Florida after graduation, where she first encountered the "glass ceiling." She said she was passed over for a job at a larger law firm because she was a woman. She later made partner at a smaller firm.

She was then hired by the Florida State’s Attorney office. The prosecutor’s administrative assistant, Seymour Gelber, who later became a circuit court judge and three-term mayor of Miami Beach, assigned her to what he considered the dead-end job of organizing the office’s juvenile division, reported Stephanie Hanes for The Washington Post.

"It was an appendage nobody paid much attention to, so I sent Janet over there and figured she would dawdle around like everybody else and write another report," Judge Gelber told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. "Instead, she pasted the juvenile court together in about two months."

She brought her fervent commitment to justice to Washington.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that Reno “cared deeply about those who were too often neglected and marginalized by our society,” something he said distinguished her in Washington.

“Janet Reno stood out as a person of integrity and of enduring values,” he said in a statement. “She was in the vanguard of those women who endured much and helped make possible the gender progress that our nation has long needed and is still making real.”

But she was disparaged by Republicans, Democrats, business leaders, and civil libertarians shortly after she started.

Soon after she took over the position, she became embroiled in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound, the home of a cult led by self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, in Waco. The standoff started before Reno’s tenure began, and ended after she ordered the raid of the compound because of allegations children were being abused inside. Mr. Koresh and some 80 followers perished after the compound caught fire. The government said the Davidians committed suicide when they shot themselves and set the compound on fire. Survivors said the tear gas rounds authorized by Reno to end the standoff started the blaze.

"I made the decision," Reno said afterward. "I’m accountable. The buck stops with me."

While Reno battled back her critics, she also embraced the derision she received from late-night talk show hosts for her appearance, short wash-and-wear haircut, and plain black pumps. Comedian Will Ferrell memorialized her in a "Saturday Night Live" skit called "Janet Reno's Dance Party." The night Reno left the Justice Department in January 2001, she made a cameo appearance in the skit. 

At the end of her political career, Reno ran unsuccessfully for governor of Florida. She lost in the Democratic primary, driving to campaign stops in a red pick-up truck, as Liz Marlantes wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in 2002.

Reno may be running in one of the nation's most high-profile gubernatorial races, but her style as a candidate is decidedly – even deliberately – unvarnished. At more than 6 feet tall, she dresses plainly in cotton shirtdresses, wears little makeup, and blushes when introduced. She speaks so softly at campaign events that only those gathered close can hear her. Indeed, she listens more than she talks. And despite being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which causes her hands to shake, the overall impression she gives is actually one of stillness – and quiet determination.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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