Janet Reno Biography

(78th United States Attorney General (1993 - 2001))

Birthday: July 21, 1938 (Cancer)

Born In: Miami, Florida, United States

Janet Wood Reno was the 78th Attorney General of the United States of America and the first woman to hold such a post. Brought up in a log-cabin home at the end of a swamp, she imbibed determination, honesty and kindness early in her life. Equally excellent in studies and debating, she majored in chemistry at the Cornell University before joining the Harvard Law School as one of the 16 female students in a class of 500. After graduation, she began her career as an attorney in a small Miami firm before joining the Dade County State Attorney's Office. Eventually, she was appointed to the post of the Attorney General of Dade County, winning the elections for five consecutive terms. At the age of 55, during Bill Clinton’s presidential tenure, she was appointed the US Attorney General. A self-described “awkward old maid” who stood 6-foot-2-inches tall, she never cared for statistics, but was more interested in providing justice, taking many bold steps to achieve her aim.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Janet Wood Reno

Died At Age: 78


father: Henry Reno

mother: Jane Wood

Lawyers Political Leaders

Died on: November 7, 2016

place of death: Miami, Florida, United States

Cause of Death: Parkinson's Disease

Ancestry: Danish American

U.S. State: Florida

City: Miami, Florida

More Facts

education: Harvard University, Cornell University

Childhood & Early Years
Janet Wood Reno was born on July 21, 1938 in Miami, Florida. Her father Henry Olaf Reno was a crime reporter at the Miami Herald. Originally from Denmark, his family immigrated to the USA when Henry was a child, later changing their surname Rasmussen to Reno after Reno, Nevada.
Her mother Jane Wood was initially a homemaker, but later became an investigative reporter at the Miami News. She has been described as an extraordinary woman who wrestled alligators. While that was an exaggeration, she did build their family home with her own hand while Henry helped her with the heavier works.
Janet was born eldest of his parents’ four children. She had two younger brothers; Mark and Robert Reno, and a sister, Maggy Hurchalla. When Janet was eight years old, the family moved to their new house, which was located at the edge of the Everglades with a tract of 21-acres.
In their new home, the Reno children grew up uninhibited and free. The only family rule that they had to follow was - no cheating or lying. Mark brought home every animal he could find and that included a shrunk. The children also learnt how to put small alligators to sleep.
Janet began her education at the local public school where she also excelled in extracurricular activities, and became a debating champion. To learn manners and ballroom dancing, she was sent to cotillion classes after school. At home, she learnt the power of determination from her mother and justice from her father.
During her early girlhood, she had two more strong women as her role models. One of them was her Aunt Daisy, who served as a nurse in North Africa during the Second World War. The other was Aunt Winnie, who belonged to the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots.
For her secondary education, Janet was enrolled at the Coral Gables Senior High School where she excelled in science, became the president of the debate club and also a member of the Girls Athletic Association at school. During the graduation ceremony in 1956, she was chosen to deliver the valediction.
In 1956, she entered the Cornell University with chemistry as her major. During this period, she had to earn her room and board. She later became the president of the Women's Self-Government Association here.
In 1960, after earning her AB degree from Cornell, Reno entered the Harvard Law School. Her class had 500 students, out of which only 16 were women, including herself, which in itself produced some difficulties. In spite of that, she continued her studies.
In 1962, she faced further gender bias when she applied for a summer job at a prominent Miami legal firm, Steel Hector & Davis. She was refused simply because she was a woman. Nonetheless, she earned her legal degree in 1963 and entered a profession where women were considered interlopers.
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Early Career
In 1963, Janet Reno began her career as an attorney at one of the smaller Miami firms, Brigham and Brigham, remaining there until 1967. Thereafter, she became a junior partner at another small firm, Lewis and Reno, remaining with it for four more years.
In 1971, she left Lewis and Reno to join the staff of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. Remaining there until 1972, she helped in drafting a revision of the state constitution, which enabled the reorganization of the court system in Florida.
In November 1972, Reno unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Florida's state house. Soon after that, she was offered a position by Richard Gerstein, Miami-Dade’s powerful State Attorney. Although initially she hesitated because she believed that prosecutors were more interested in seeking convictions than justice, she later accepted the position.
In 1973, Reno joined the office of the State Attorney for Miami-Dade County. Here, she was given the job of renovating the State Attorney’s office so that it could effectively deal with the changes brought in the state’s court system. Later, she became Richard Gerstein’s chief assistant.
In 1976, lured by Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, she left the State Attorney’s Office to become a partner at Steel Hector & Davis, which not so long ago had rejected her because of her gender. She remained with the firm for only two years.
State Attorney for Miami-Dade County
In December 1977, Richard Gerstein, the State Attorney for Miami-Dade County, decided to retire. He recommended his former assistant Janet Reno and chief assistant Ed Carhart as his possible successors. Shortly after, Governor Reubin Askew, who admired Reno’s work on the House Judiciary Committee, appointed her to the post.
In January 1978, Reno was sworn in as the State Attorney for Miami-Dade. She had around 95 prosecutors working under her, who handled 15,000 felonies and 40,000 misdemeanors a year. Very quickly, she became known as a workaholic who began her days with a Spanish lesson at 7:30 am.
In November 1978, she was elected to the Office of State Attorney for Miami-Dade County, returning to it four more times. During her tenure, Miami was growing rapidly, leading to rise in crime rate, especially in drug-related crimes. There were also the problems of illegal immigrants and widening racial divisions.
A pragmatic problem solver, Reno kept notes on the progress of important felony cases in her ‘black book’, regularly meeting her senior assistants and prosecutors, expecting answers from them, but often calling the shots. She was particularly aggressive in child abuse cases. Very soon, she became known as a micro-manager.
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She also established the first Drug Court in the country and took active part in various civic organizations, such as the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community. She was also attached to the Beacon Council, formed to address the area’s economic development.
McDuffie Affair & Thereafter
Reno faced her first severe test in 1980. On 17 December 1979, 33 years old African-American marine veteran, McDuffie, was beaten to death by several white policemen for riding through a red light at 1 am. To make it look like an accident, they later split his head open.
Reno’s office charged the officers with manslaughter and tampering with evidence. In spite of her best efforts, all the policemen were declared non-guilty by an all-white jury at the end of the trial. It resulted in an immediate riot among the black community that blamed Reno for the acquittal.
In spite of a threat to her life, Reno repeatedly visited the black areas, unarmed and unescorted, expressing her disappointment at the verdict. It eventually helped to normalize the situation although their distrust lingered at least until 1984. Meanwhile in 1982, she lost another manslaughter case against Miami police office.
In 1985, she was challenged by Garcia-Pedrosa, a former Miami city attorney, who stood against her in the election for the post of State Attorney General for Miami-Dade County. In the end, Reno won with overwhelming majority, showing that she still had the confidence of the voters.
She remained in her post till 1992, battling her share of criticism. According to her detractors, in spite of having the highest crime rate in the country, the rate of conviction was the lowest in Miami-Dade. The police force was also unhappy with her.
According to her supporters, the rate of conviction was lower in her jurisdiction because instead of statistics, she focused more on serious offenders. Secondly, first-time non-violent offenders were often placed in drug court for treatment and supervision, instead of being prosecuted.
Reno was equally known for handling the public corruption cases. She prosecuted half a dozen elected officials and won cases against them. Moreover, she aggressively pursued those police officers who crossed the line and thus risking their discontent.
US Attorney General
In 1993, Janet Reno was nominated for the post of the United States Attorney General by the Clinton administration. After a smooth hearing, her position was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Finally, she took office on March 12, 1993, remaining in the position for the rest of Clinton's presidency.
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Soon after assuming office in 1993, Reno was embroiled in a controversy involving the Waco seizes. She had ordered FBI to conduct raids on the compound of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, which resulted in 103 deaths. Her accepting the responsibility was appreciated by many Americans.
In 1994, she asked the Justice Department to compile a report on DNA exoneration after reading about the acquittal of a death row inmate. When it was reported that there was a strong possibility that DNA evidence could prevent wrongful conviction, she changed relevant policies.
During her early years, in addition to enforcing new policies on crime, race relations, immigration, corruption etc; Reno tried to provide security to women seeking abortion. She focused more on anticrime programs such as gun control, treatment and rehabilitation than on building prisons.
Over the next few years, Reno concentrated on laws related to child pornography, drafting legislations that gave the law wider scope. She also tried to regulate violence on television shows and resisted Vice President Al Gore’s plan to merge the Drug Enforcement Administration with FBI.
In 1999-2000, Reno played a leading role in returning Cuban child Elián González to his father. His mother had died while attempting to cross into the USA with him. Initially, he was placed with his paternal relatives in Miami who wanted to keep him in the USA
While González’s Miami relatives petitioned for his asylum, his father wanted him back. Eventually, after a string of court cases, Reno ordered that the child be removed from the house of his relatives and handed over to his father. Her decision provoked negative sentiment among the Cuban community in Florida.
Later Years
In 2002, after the end of her tenure as the US Attorney General, Janet Reno ran unsuccessfully for the post of the Governor of Florida, losing to Bill McBride. Thereafter, she traveled to the various parts of the country, giving lectures on the criminal justice system.
Major Works
Janet Reno is best remembered for her programs for the troubled children. Believing that it was possible to redirect the children from the path of crime, she pushed for reforms that provided assistance to such children at the earliest stage, using the carrot and stick method to achieve the goal.
Awards & Achievements
In March 2008, Janet Reno was awarded with the Council on Litigation Management's Professionalism Award.
On April 17, 2009, she received the Justice Award from the American Judicature Society for "her commitment to improving our systems of justice and educating Americans about our great common enterprise – to ensure equality under the law."
Death & Legacy
Janet Reno remained unmarried and did not have any children. However, she shared a close bond with her siblings, especially her sister Maggy, throughout her life. She also had many friends and an active social life.
In 1995, Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In spite of that, she continued to lead an active life, finally dying of it on November 7, 2016. At the time of her death, she was 78 years old.
In 1997, while occupying the post of the US Attorney General, Janet Reno appeared on NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’, joining actor Will Ferrell in a skit called, ‘Janet Reno’s Dance Party’. In one episode, she even engaged in ‘stage-diving’; but showed her aversion to ‘moshing’.
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