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President bill clinton appointed Janet Reno to be U.S. attorney general on February 11, 1993. She was his third choice for the post. The first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, Reno previously served as the state attorney for Florida's Dade County, which includes Miami. During her first term as attorney general, Reno sought stricter Gun Control laws, lobbied for funding for more local police officers, and worked with communities to develop more effective methods of crime prevention.
Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami, Florida. Her parents were journalists who worked for Miami daily newspapers. Reno attended public schools in Dade County and enrolled at Cornell University in 1956. After her graduation in 1960, she attended Harvard Law School, one of only 16 women in a class of more than 500 students. She graduated in 1963 but found that her gender made it difficult to find work as a lawyer in Miami.
In 1971, Reno was named staff director of the Florida House Judiciary Committee. In that position, she oversaw the revision of the Florida court system. In 1973, she was named counsel for the state senate's committee that is responsible for revising the Florida Criminal Code. That same year, she accepted a position in the Dade County state attorney's office. She quickly succeeded in organizing a juvenile division within the office.
Reno left the state attorney's office in 1976 to become a partner in a private Miami law firm. She was drawn back into government service in 1978 when the Dade County state attorney stepped down before the end of his term. Appointed to be state attorney, Reno was elected to a full term in November 1978, and the voters returned her to office four more times.
As state attorney, Reno managed an office of 940 employees with an annual budget of $30 million and a yearly docket of 120,000 cases. She established a career-criminal unit that worked with federal officials and local law enforcement to arrest and convict career criminals and to sentence them to substantial prison time. Reno also helped establish the Miami drug court, which has been a model for courts in the United States. The drug court provides alternative punishment for nonviolent offenders who have a drug-abuse problem. More than half of those offenders who have completed the program have remained free of drugs.
Reno also focused attention on prevention programs that enabled children to grow in a safe, constructive environment. She helped to reform the juvenile justice system and pursued delinquent fathers for Child Support payments.
As U.S. attorney general, Reno entered the public spotlight almost immediately. On February 28, 1993, approximately 100 agents from the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms (ATF) raided the Waco, Texas, compound of the members of the Branch Davidian religious cult, who were led by David Koresh. The agents and cult members exchanged gunfire. Four ATF agents died, six cult members were killed, and 16 others were wounded.
After the unsuccessful raid, a long stand-off ensued. Reno oversaw the negotiations between Koresh and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). For 51 days, negotiations continued, but, in April, the FBI alerted Reno that cult members were planning a mass suicide. Although Koresh had released some children, many remained in the compound.
Reno ordered an assault on the compound, which took place on April 19, 1993. Cult members started fires in three locations, which soon engulfed the wooden buildings. Approximately 86 cult members, including 17 children, died that day. Reno, expressing anguish over the loss of life, particularly the children's lives, took full responsibility for the decision to storm the compound. She came under heavy attack for having approved the plan, which she defended as having been based on the information known at the time. She conceded, however, that based on the results, it obviously had been the wrong decision.
Reno became embroiled in another major national controversy in 1999 and 2000 after fishermen found a six-year-old boy named Elian Gonzalez floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. The boy's mother and stepfather had tried to flee Cuba, but both died after their boat capsized. The boy's relatives in Miami wanted him to stay in the United States, but his father, who remained in Cuba, demanded his return.
For four months during 2000, the nation debated whether the boy should be returned to Cuba. Reno and the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) maintained that the boy should be returned to his father, but allowed the courts to make the decision. When a federal court ruled that the boy should be returned to his father, Reno and the INS demanded that the relatives turn the boy over to authorities. The relatives refused, and Reno eventually ordered armed federal agents to enter the home of the relatives who were keeping the boy. Elian was eventually returned to his father in Cuba. Reno came under fire for a number of reasons during the controversy, most notably due to her decision to use armed guards to gain custody of the boy.
Reno's greatest achievement during the first Clinton administration was helping the president win congressional approval of the 1994 crime bill, the most substantial crime legislation in U.S. history (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796). The $30.2 billion measure was a complex mixture of government spending and changes to previous Criminal Law. It authorized the funding of social programs, the hiring of 100,000 police officers nationwide, and the building of new prisons. Reno applauded the increased legal protections afforded to women and children under the Violence against Women Act of 1994, which was contained in the bill, although, in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The National Rifle Association had protested Reno's efforts to ban 19 assault-style firearms, yet Congress included this controversial measure in the final bill. The bill also prohibited gun purchases by people who are subject to court restraining orders because of Domestic Violence.
Reno has traveled throughout the United States, visiting with local officials to encourage crime prevention programs and law enforcement methods such as community policing.
"Nothing can make me madder than lawyers who don't care about others."
Reno served two full terms as attorney general, stepping down at the end of the Clinton administration in 2001. In September 2001, she made national headlines again when she announced that she would run for governor of Florida in the 2002 election. A year later, she lost the Democratic nomination in the race to political newcomer Bill McBride.
Anderson, Paul. 1994. Janet Reno: Doing the Right Thing. New York: J. Wiley.
"Exit Interview: Janet Reno." 2001. MacNeil/Lehrer News-hour. PBS. Available online at <www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june01/reno_1-18.html> (accessed November 21, 2003).
Powell, H. Jefferson. 1999. The Constitution and the Attorneys General. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.