Janet Reno, who has died aged 78, was the first woman attorney general of the US. Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1991, she served throughout his two terms of office, the second longest tenure in American history. It made her a figure of stability in a cabinet often in flux and frequently rocked by the steady stream of partisan attacks on both President Clinton and the first lady, Hillary Clinton, most notably the Whitewater investigation.
Never part of Clinton’s inner circle, Reno displayed great independence, and her courage to stand behind decisions she felt were right often left her vulnerable to critics from both sides of the political fence. Her controversial decisions included the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; the return of the six-year-old Elián González to Cuba; the anti-monopoly prosecution of Microsoft and a racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry to recover the healthcare costs of treating smokers. Each time she would stand behind her actions publicly, often quoting Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here”.
Born in Miami, she was the daughter of two of the city’s journalists. Her father, born Henry Rasmussen, came to the US as a child from Denmark; his parents reportedly chose the more American name Reno from a map. He worked as a crime reporter on the Miami Herald for 43 years. Her mother, Jane Wood, was a reporter on the Miami News, and a naturalist famed locally for wrestling alligators. When Janet was eight and she and her three siblings moved to a home on the edge of the Everglades, her mother built their new house herself.
Janet was debate champion at Coral Gables high school and left Cornell University in 1960 with a degree in chemistry; commentators sometimes noted her almost scientific approach to both the law and to the facts of a case. She graduated from Harvard law school in 1963, one of only 16 women in her class, but when she returned to Miami she was turned down by the city’s most prestigious firm, Steel Hector & Davis. After opening her own firm, in 1971 she was appointed counsel to the Florida state house of representatives’ judicial committee and, in 1972, she lost in a race for a state house seat.
But she was offered a job by Richard Gerstein, the state attorney for Dade County, which includes Miami. She informed Gerstein that her father thought he was a crook; he replied that that was why she had been offered the job. Although she left the office briefly in 1976, when offered a partnership by the same firm who had rejected her 13 years earlier, she returned, and when Gerstein retired she was appointed to his job, a difficult one given Miami’s high crime rate and racial conflicts.
She prosecuted a number of high-profile child abuse cases where doubts over convictions led to changes in the ways such cases were handled. Most tellingly, she brought charges against five white policemen for beating a black insurance salesman to death. Their acquittal in 1980 (by a judge and jury in Tampa) sparked rioting in Miami during which 18 people died. Reno resisted calls for her resignation, instead working for improved relations with the black community.
Bill Clinton offered Reno the attorney general’s post after his first two choices, Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, both withdrew because they had hired undocumented immigrants as nannies.
Before she had taken office in 1993, David Koresh and his Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh Day Adventist church began a showdown against federal agents seeking to search their Waco compound for illegal weapons. Ten people, including four agents from the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were killed when they tried to serve a warrant in February. In April, Reno ordered a full-scale assault on the compound in which Koresh and 75 other people, many of them children, died. She was criticized fiercely by the right, for murdering American “patriots”, and by the left for claiming she feared children were being abused by the Davidians. Reno took full responsibility; in 2004 she said that “the tragedy is we will never know what was the right thing to do”.
In 1994 Reno appointed a special prosecutor, the Republican Robert B Fiske, to investigate the Clintons’ real estate deal known as Whitewater, but Fiske was viewed by the right as too bipartisan, and Congress empowered an independent counsel, George HW Bush’s former solicitor general Kenneth Starr, to replace him. Starr’s investigations ran for five years, resulting in the impeachment and acquittal of Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. In the middle of Whitewater, Reno refused to appoint another prosecutor to investigate the Clintons’ campaign financing, saying the was no evidence to justify such calls.
Her efforts against Big Tobacco ran head on into powerful voices in Congress funded by the industry in the states they represented. In 1998 she pursued the suit against Microsoft despite critics who claimed the issues were “too complicated” for juries to understand.
But her political legacy was again sealed by a raid, in the case of González, the Cuban boy found in an inner tube off the coast of Florida after his mother was one of 10 people who drowned when the small boat in which they left Cuba sank. González’s relatives in Miami refused to send him back to his father (from whom his mother was divorced) in Cuba. The boy, who later said he had wanted to return, became a political football, until the family refused to follow a court order, and Reno ordered a pre-dawn raid on their house in which Elián was seized and returned to his father. The attorney general who believed so strongly in the facts and the law was again left with no option but the use of governmental force.
Over six feet tall and resolutely lacking glamour, Reno was a figure of cruel abuse on rightwing talk radio, and a somewhat gentler satire on Saturday Night Live, where Will Ferrell’s skits of “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” were a running gag. After leaving office in 2001, Reno showed a more relaxed side to her character by appearing on the show alongside Ferrell.
In 2002, Reno mounted a challenge to Florida’s Republican governor, Jeb Bush, but she lost the Democratic primary to Bill McBride.
Reno had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995. In later years she served on numerous boards, including that of The Innocence Project, and devoted herself to her extended family.
She is survived by her sister Maggy. Loretta Lynch, the second woman to serve as US attorney general praised Reno, saying “She was guided by one simple test, to do what the law and the facts required... regardless of which way the political winds were blowing.”
From The Guardian