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.

Further Reading on Janet Reno

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).