Florida native Janet Wood Reno made history when President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. Prior to her work in Washington, Reno had already made waves in Florida after becoming the first woman elected as state attorney in 1978. Janet Reno died at her home early Monday morning. She was 78 years old.
Born in Miami on July 21, 1938 to journalists Jane Wood and Henry Reno, Janet Reno grew up surrounded by intellectual stimuli. When thirteen-year-old Janet announced to her mother, an investigative reporter for the now defunct Miami News, that she aspired to attend law school, her mother encouraged her to realize her dreams. “You can do anything, be anything you really want to be, regardless of whether you’re a woman….You want to be a lawyer? You can be a lawyer,” remembered Reno of her mother who died of cancer in 1992. After graduating from Coral Gables High School in 1956 and Cornell University in 1960, she applied to Harvard Law School. Upon learning of her daughter’s acceptance to the program, Reno’s mother “whoop[ed] with joy,” explaining that she had always wanted to become a lawyer, too.
In 1963, Janet Reno was one of just 15 women–in a graduating class of 500–to earn a law degree from Harvard. As a young lawyer in the 1960s, Reno overcame several hurdles before rising to political prominence in the 1980s and 90s. She applied for a clerkship with a law firm the summer after graduation, but the firm rejected her application because of her gender. “I felt mad,” admitted Reno. “[I] went and got a job at another law firm. I never let it bother me after that,” said the future U.S. Attorney General, who, fourteen years later, would make partner at the very same law firm that had originally rejected her on account of being female. She briefly served as staff director to the Florida House Judiciary Committee before mounting a failed campaign for a seat in the Legislature in 1972. “The loss was painful,” according to Reno. But she wasted no time wallowing in defeat, and moved to Tallahassee where she quickly made inroads with the Governor’s Office, serving as assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit from 1973-1976. She then went to work in private practice, until Governor Reubin Askew appointed Reno to serve as Dade County State Attorney in 1978, the first woman in Florida to hold that position. In November 1978, Janet Reno won election to the post by a 74-point margin.
As Miami’s senior prosecutor from 1978 to 1993, Reno faced repeated criticisms for her handling of several high-profile racially sensitive cases. Nonetheless, she remained steadfast in her intent to uphold the integrity of the judicial process. “I don’t ever want to be accused of pleasing one group at the expense of justice,” she maintained. Governor Lawton Chiles commended her for showing “great character and courage” as state attorney, and another colleague qualified the heated critiques of Reno noting that “some of the cases were not winnable. She had the courage to go forward with the prosecutions and maybe other prosecutors would not have. I can’t fault her for that.” During her fifteen years representing the Florida metropolis, Janet Reno was never one to stay holed up in her office. She kept her home phone number listed in the city directory, mentored wayward teenagers, and visited schools and women’s shelters with messages of hope and perseverance. On her approach with victims of domestic violence she said: “Despite what these women have been through, you have to show them how not to feel like victims. You try to work with them in every way you possibly can–serve as an example for them, show them they can be somebody, show them what they can do, what their daughters can do.”
Her grassroots approach in Miami caught the attention of the incoming presidential administration of Bill Clinton, who nominated Reno for appointment as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. “Janet Reno is far and away the best candidate for this job that President Clinton could have nominated,” remarked Florida Senator Bob Graham. After recounting the story of how her late mother built their family home brick by brick, Reno translated the family story into a folksy testimony of how she planned to approach the impending office. “… [T]hat house stands as a symbol to me, that you can do anything you really want to, if it’s the right thing to do and you put your mind to it,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee confirmed her appointment as U.S. Attorney General in March 1993.
The newly-appointed attorney general attracted heavy media buzz during her first month in office, a phenomenon many referred to as “Reno-mania.” However, the six-foot one-inch tall, U.S. Attorney General, who described herself as a “54 year old awkward maid [with] a messy house,” rejected the fanfare of high-profile political life. She remained focused instead on the great responsibility of being “the people’s lawyer.” Reno refused to engage the suggestion that she only got the job because she was a woman, looking forward instead: “I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, but having been offered it [U.S. Attorney General] I’m going to do the best I can.” Early on in her tenure, Reno envisioned a legacy tied to creating “equal opportunity for all the children of America” and doing everything she could to “put the families first.” Her platform included a sensible stance on crime, working with health and education officials to reduce juvenile crime, protecting the environment by enforcing anti-pollution laws, and upholding civil rights. Despite an ambitious, reform-minded agenda, the attorney general inevitably found herself at the center of numerous federal controversies. But Reno’s unprecedented willingness to assume responsibility for her decisions, whether perceived rights or wrongs, endeared her to many constituents. “I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me,” she famously remarked after her regrettable decision to allow federal intervention of the Branch Davidian Complex in Waco, Texas in 1993 led to the deaths of dozens of people. “That was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I will live with it for the rest of my life,” conceded Reno. Though Janet Reno’s time in federal office was certainly not without indiscretion, many Americans found her honesty and candid delivery refreshing. Reno served as U.S. Attorney General until 2001, earning the additional honorarium of longest serving attorney general of the twentieth century.
Upon returning to Florida, she put in a bid for the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race, but lost the primary to Democratic opponent Bill McBride, and subsequently retired from political life. During the last decade of her life, Janet Reno enjoyed a quiet life in the Florida Everglades. “I don’t think I’m a gregarious person, in the sense of having a lot of casual friends. I have a few people I am very close to,” she explained to a reporter soon after winning the state attorney race in 1978. On November 7, 2016, Janet Reno, the trailblazing lawyer with the impeccable integrity, died in her home, surrounded by her closest family and friends.