Janet Reno epitomized justice.
She understood the power of the law and the impact it has on the lives of every American. She understood the need to be independent and to rise above the politics and the pressure. And, she realized that to be effective, she needed to make difficult decisions that might ruffle Republicans and Democrats alike.
And that she did.
One of my first experiences with Attorney General Reno was as a young press aide accompanying her to a White House meeting. Upon our arrival, a White House staffer asked me to show her a newspaper article critical of a decision Reno had recently made. When I placed it on the table in front of her, Reno glanced at it briefly, pushed it away, stared up at me and sternly asked, “Why are you showing me this?” As I fumbled to answer, she added, “Is there something in here that I did not already consider when I made my decision?”
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It was a valuable lesson. An attorney general should not be concerned with how a decision is received, but by how it is made. As she often would tell reporters, she based her decisions on “the law and the facts.” Unless someone presented her evidence or an argument that she hadn’t considered, she was not going to second-guess herself, be persuaded by political factors or care about criticism in the media or elsewhere.
When I became the department’s chief spokesman, I saw firsthand that, not only did Reno rise above the politics, but she urged others around her to do so as well. One evening prior to a tough decision she was about to announce, she walked into my office and handed me a shirt emblazoned with another phrase she often uttered, “Strength and courage” — two characteristics she had plenty of.
It is perhaps why she had no trouble referring a record 10 matters to independent counsels, including one that led to the impeachment of the president. And, it is why she had no trouble refusing to appoint an independent counsel when she felt the evidence just wasn’t there.
She was going to do what the law required, and she wasn’t going to be concerned about the fallout. If I ever even hinted to her about the negative reaction she might generate, she would remind me, “I rent month-to-month and would be happy to return home to Miami.” And she meant it.
This was clear for anyone — even her critics — to see. We saw it when she said, “The buck stops with me” after David Koresh set the Branch Davidian compound on fire. We saw it when she decided to use law enforcement to reunite Elian González with his dad, after first giving his Miami relatives every chance to comply with the law. We saw it when she pressed news organizations to publish the manifesto of the Unabomber, which ultimately led to his capture. And, we saw it when she pursued Microsoft for its anticompetitive conduct and the tobacco industry for its alleged misleading statements.
But, it wasn’t just the big, newsworthy cases where Reno made her mark. She lent her voice and influence to numerous actions that the department brought. She vigorously promoted a new law that protected Americans with disabilities, touting cases that made car rental agencies, fast food chains and amusement parks more accessible. She helped highlight some of the record number of housing and lending discrimination cases brought on behalf of Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics. She fought strenuously to allow women into two collegiate military institutions, and she vigorously defended a law that made it easier for Americans to register to vote. As attorney general, she stepped up consumer protection actions and re-invigorated the environmental division that forced cruise lines and power plants to pay record fines.
Most important, Reno had the fortitude and foresight to focus, not just on punishing criminals, but on supporting efforts to prevent crimes in the first place. She embraced early-intervention programs to set juveniles on the right track, promoted community policing so that officers interacted more closely with the citizens they served and pushed for more drug courts for nonviolent offenders. Also, she forged close partnerships with state and local law enforcement, which combined to help reduce violent crime every year she was in office.
And through it all, she shouldered the awesome responsibility of helping to keep the country safe from terrorist attacks — a responsibility that weighed heavily on her every day. To me, that was made abundantly clear on her last day in office. As she got into her FBI vehicle for her final trip to Andrews Air Force Base, she looked over and said, “I no longer have to worry about the terrorism or the bombs.” And with that she leaned back and closed her eyes.
There are many people who travel to Washington to improve lives and do justice. Janet Reno did both. Sunday, many of those whose lives she touched will honor her at a memorial service in Miami — the place she always considered home.
Myron Marlin served as the director of public affairs and chief spokesman at the U.S. Department of Justice, 1998-2001.