First female attorney general, a ‘force’ in law
Janet Reno, the strong-minded Florida prosecutor tapped by Bill Clinton to become the country’s first female U.S. attorney general, and who shaped the U.S. government’s responses to the largest legal crises of the 1990s, died Monday at her home in Miami. She was 78.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, her goddaughter, Gabrielle D’Alemberte, told the Associated Press. Ms. Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1995, while she was attorney general.
Ms. Reno brought a fierce independence to her job. From the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Texas to the investigation into Clinton’s sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, she was adamant that her prosecutors and agents work outside the influence of politics, media or popular opinion.
Her supporters believed she brought a heightened level of integrity and professionalism to the attorney general’s office. They admired her insistence on legal exactitude from her employees and praised her caution in prosecutions.
Ms. Reno resisted weeks of pressure to arrest Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, waiting until she thought agents had sufficient legal justification to tie him to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. He was later convicted.
“She was a very powerful force for lawfulness,” said Walter E. Dellinger III, a Duke University law professor who served as solicitor general during Ms. Reno’s tenure. “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.”
Business leaders criticized her lengthy prosecution of Microsoft on charges of anti-competitive violations — a case that ultimately ended in a settlement under the George W. Bush administration.
Civil libertarians took Ms. Reno to task for her handling of the espionage case against former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was held in solitary confinement for nine months after being charged with mishandling nuclear secrets, only to be released on a lesser charge.
Republicans criticized her bitterly for what they saw as pandering to the Clinton White House — she refused, for instance, to launch an independent investigation into whether Vice President Al Gore illegally raised funds from the White House during the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign. Democrats, meanwhile, disparaged her for abandoning her political patrons. She said Hillary Clinton never forgave her Janet Reno remained in office longer than any other attorney general of the 20th century. for authorizing an investigation into the Lewinsky affair.
Ms. Reno remained in office longer than any other attorney general of the 20th century, and won high marks outside the capital for her plain-spoken manner and folksiness: her preference for kayaking on the Potomac River over hobnobbing on Washington’s cocktail circuit; her oft-told childhood stories from the Everglades, with a mother who wrestled alligators; and her home in Florida with a family of peacocks, all named Horace.
A self-described “awkward old maid” who stood nearly 6 foot 2, Ms. Reno showed a willingness to lampoon her image. She joined actor Will Ferrell on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” as he played a wooden version of her in a skit called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”
She was Bill Clinton’s third pick for attorney general. He had promised to nominate a woman for the post, but his first two choices — corporate lawyer Zoe Baird and New York federal Judge Kimba Wood — withdrew after allegations that they hired illegal immigrants as nannies.
Ms. Reno, who had no children and therefore no nanny issues, came to the president’s attention through his brotherin-law Hugh Rodham, a public defender in Dade County and an admirer of Reno.
Janet Wood Reno was born in Miami on July 21, 1938. Her father, Henry, spent more than 40 years as a police reporter for the Miami Herald. Her mother, the former Jane Wood, was an investigative reporter for the now-defunct Miami News.
Ms. Reno graduated from Cornell University in 1960 and in 1963 from Harvard Law School, where she was one of a handful of women in a class of more than 500.