Janet Reno

First Woman Attorney General of the United States

Janet Reno
Janet Reno 1997. Richard Ellis / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

About Janet Reno

Dates: July 21, 1938 - November 7, 2016

Occupation: lawyer, cabinet official

Known for: first woman Attorney General, first female states attorney in Florida (1978-1993)

Janet Reno Biography

Attorney General of the United States from March 12, 1993 until the end of the Clinton administration (January 2001), Janet Reno was an attorney who held various states attorney positions in the state of Florida prior to her federal appointment.

She was the first woman to hold the office of Attorney General of the United States.

Janet Reno was born and grew up in Florida. She left for Cornell University in 1956, majoring in chemistry, and then became one of 16 women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School.

Facing discrimination as a woman in her early years as a lawyer, she became staff director for the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. After a failed bid for a Congressional seat in 1972, she joined the state's attorney's office, leaving to join a private law firm in 1976.

In 1978, Janet Reno was appointed states attorney for Dade County for Florida, the first woman to hold that position. She then won reelection to that office four times. She was known for working hard on behalf of children, against drug peddlars, and against corrupt judges and police officers.

On February 11, 1993, incoming President Bill Clinton appointed Janet Reno as Attorney General of the United States, after his first two choices had problems getting confirmed, and Janet Reno was sworn in May 12, 1993.

Controversies and Actions as Attorney General

Controversial actions involving Reno during her tenure as U.S. Attorney General included

  • The Branch Davidian standoff and fire in Waco, Texas,
  • Leak of the wrong name of a suspect during the investigation of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (and later identification of the correct suspect, Eric Rudolph, who evaded capture until 2003)
  • Return of Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, and
  • Her reluctance to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations about 1996 campaign fund-raising by President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

Other actions of the Department of Justice under Reno's leadership included bringing Microsoft to court for antitrust violations, capture and conviction of the Unabomber, capture and conviction of those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and initiation of a lawsuit against tobacco companies.

In 1995, during her term as Attorney General, Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 2007, when asked how it had changed her lifestyle, she replied, in part, that "I do spend less time doing whitewater."

Post-Cabinet Career and Life

Janet Reno ran for governor in Florida in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primary. She has worked with the Innocence Project, which seeks to use DNA evidence to help gain release of those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Janet Reno never married, living with her mother until her mother's death in 1992. Her single status and her 6'1.5" height were the basis of innuendos about her sexual orientation and "mannishness." Many writers have pointed out that male cabinet officials were not subjected to the same kinds of provably-false rumors, comments on dress and marital status, and sexual stereotyping as was Janet Reno.

Reno died on November 7, 2016, the day before Election Day in the United States, when one of the major candidates was Hillary Clinton, wife of President Clinton who appointed Reno to his cabinet.  The cause of death was complications from Parkinson's disease which she had battled with for 20 years.

Background, Family

  • Father: Henry Reno (Danish immigrant, police reporter, originally named Rasmussen)
  • Mother: Jane Wood (homemaker, then reporter)
  • Three siblings (Robert, Maggy, Mark); Janet Reno was the eldest

Education

  • Cornell University, AB, chemistry, 1960
  • Harvard Law School, LLB, 1963

Janet Reno Quotes

  • Speak out against the hatred, the bigotry and the violence in this land. Most haters are cowards. When confronted, they back down. When we remain silent, they flourish.
  • Haters are cowards. When confronted they often back down. We must resist haters.
  • I hope to end racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination and disharmony in America by enforcing the laws to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans, and by restoring civil rights enforcement as one of the top priorities of the department. (acceptance speech for Attorney General)
  • I'm not fancy. I'm what I appear to be.
  • We want to continue the efforts against domestic violence and spread the drug courts, and develop real effective means of providing treatment for drug abusers without having to have them arrested.
  • Nothing can make me madder than lawyers who don't care about others.
  • At this moment I do not have a personal relationship with a computer.
  • It might be that some day I shall be drowned by the sea, or die of pneumonia from sleeping out at night, or be robbed and strangled by strangers. These things happen. Even so, I shall be ahead because of trusting the beach, the night and strangers.
  • Anybody that thought that I tried to protect the president has forgotten that I asked for the expansion of the Monica Lewinsky matter.
  • I mean, obviously, a situation like Waco, you wonder what you could have done differently. And in hindsight you would do something differently.
  • I made the decision. I'm accountable.
  • The buck stops with me.
  • I worked with some wonderful people, tried my best and I feel comfortable.
  • Until the day I die, or until the day I can't think anymore, I want to be involved in the issues that I care about.

Quotes About Janet Reno

  • What is it about Janet Reno that so fascinates and confounds and even terrifies America? (Washington Post Magazine, Liza Mundy)
  • While the capital's elite attended state dinners and fancy fundraisers, Reno would be out kayaking the Potomac River. (Julia Epstein)