In the hours after Janet Reno’s death from Parkinson’s disease on Monday, praise for her life of public service started pouring in from Miami to Washington, D.C.
The 78-year-old Reno — the first woman to serve as the nation’s attorney general and as Miami-Dade’s state prosecutor — worked in a world of conflict and controversy. Yet few questioned her independence and integrity.
“When Janet Reno arrived in Washington in 1993, the city had never seen anyone like her before – and hasn't since,” the White House said in a statement of condolences. “The daughter of reporters – including a mother who literally wrestled alligators – Janet was tough as nails and never cowered in her fight for what was right. ... Her legacy lives on in a generation of lawyers she inspired, the ordinary lives she touched, and a nation that is more just.”
She mentored and made the careers of a whole generation of high-profile lawyers, starting with her protégé, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has served as Miami-Dade state attorney since Reno left for Washington in 1993 to become U.S. attorney general.
“While some may dispute decisions she made during her 40-year career, it’s indisputable that she epitomized public service, others before self, and with the highest standard of integrity,” Fernandez Rundle said.
One of Reno’s most controversial calls came in 2000 — ordering federal agents to seize young Elián González from his relatives’ home in Little Havana and return him to his father in Cuba. The act enraged many in the Cuban community in her hometown, where at least one Spanish-language radio host was still condemning her on Monday. But Reno always defended the move, saying it was in the best interest of the boy to be with his only remaining parent. Elián’s mother had drowned in the crossing from Cuba.
Wifredo Ferrer, South Florida’s U.S. attorney, who served as Reno’s counsel and deputy chief of staff at the Justice Department, said “she really wanted the government to work for the people,” especially women, children and minorities who did not have easy access to the law.
“She taught everyone around her that life is not about what you acquire, but what you give,” Ferrer said. “She gave herself to the public.”
Michael Band, a Miami criminal defense attorney who had worked as one of Reno’s senior prosecutors, said she treated her colleagues as “extended family” and in the practice of the law she “always wanted to know the truth regardless of the consequences.”
“She understood the human condition,” Band said, noting how she helped reform juvenile justice, created Miami’s drug court, and made protecting children the centerpiece of her work. “She wanted to make the world a better place.”
Reno's impact on Miami is hard to understate, said prominent Miami attorney John Hogan, who worked as Reno’s chief assistant in the state attorney’s office. He recalled that after she left Washington D.C, Reno and Hogan were waiting for their car after a dinner party in Miami when a valet in his 20s approached.
“He said he'd always wanted to meet her and shook hands with her,” Hogan recalled.
The two noticed the valet's name tag read: Reno. “My mother named me after you because you got child support for the family,” the valet said.
Reno just nodded. During her time as state attorney, she made a priority of recovering child-support from dead-beat dads.
Others said that Reno was a compassionate person at her core, despite how the public may have perceived her.
Miami attorney Albert Dotson, said he credited Reno with inspiring him to become a lawyer when she hired him as a college intern in the state prosecutor’s office.
“Many saw Janet Reno only for her tough veneer, but to those who knew her, she had a heart of gold,” Dotson said. “We stayed in touch over the years and when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, they had many heart-to-heart conversations about it.
“It was so clear even then that what ailed her body did not affect her brilliant mind.”