First female US attorney general leaves legacy

Janet Reno, the first female U.S. attorney general, died Monday morning in Miami after a 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.  She was 78 years old.

Reno served as attorney general under President Bill Clinton from 1993-2001, longer than any attorney general in the past 150 years.  Throughout the two-term duration of the Clinton administration, Reno dealt with controversies that highlighted the face of the justice system.

Reno managed convictions that included various bombers, including Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist known as the “Unabomber,” and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for their roles in the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy in 1995.

Reno took office in 1993 during the Branch Davidian complex standoff in Waco, Texas. The attorney general ordered federal agents to raid the compound on the 51st day of the standoff. Approximately 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect, including sect leader David Koresh and as many as 25 children, were killed.  Additionally, four federal agents died and 16 were wounded while serving search warrants for illegal guns.

In 2000, Reno played a role in the case of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban immigrant who was found off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in November 1999.  Gonzalez was the sole survivor among a group of 13 Cuban migrants attempting to enter the U.S., including his mother.  The incident evolved into an international custody dispute between Gonzalez’s Miami relatives and his father in Cuba.  Reno ordered an early-morning raid that resulted in Gonzalez’s return to Cuba into his father’s custody.

After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida to run for governor in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primary.

Reno was well-known for saying, “the buck stops with me,”  a borrowed mantra from President Harry S. Truman.

Born in 1938, Reno grew up in Florida with parents who were both Miami newspaper reporters. After earning her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, Reno enrolled in Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  According to the Harvard Law School website, “She was one of only 16 women in a class of more than 500 students (when enrolled in 1960).” Reno later decided to become a lawyer.  Reno said of making the decision, “I didn’t want people to tell me what to do.”

Following law school, Reno worked for four years as an associate at the Brigham & Brigham law firm, before becoming partner at Lewis & Reno law firm, where she remained for four years.  In 1971, Reno joined the Florida House of Representatives as a staff director.

After a brief return to the private sector, Reno was appointed Florida State Attorney, representing the Miami area as the first woman to hold the position.  Reno remained on the job for 15 years until former president Bill Clinton selected her to become 78th  U.S. attorney general.

“It’s an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud,” Reno said after she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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  1. Very nice memorial, Elysia!

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