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Janet Reno, First Woman To Be U.S. Attorney General, Dies At 78

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Associated Press
South Florida native Janet Reno made history on March 12, 1993 when she was swore as first female U.S. Attorney General.

Miami’s Janet Reno,  the first woman to be United States attorney general, died Monday at 78 from complications connected to Parkinson’s disease.

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Listen to a story about Janet Reno's career and legacy in Miami.

Her eight-year tenure in that office brought some of the country's most high-profile issues to her desk including the seizure and return of Elián González to Cuba, the capture of the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and the 51-day Waco siege standoff in which 76 people died.

More Gladesman than Washingtonian, Reno grew up in a Miami that’s increasingly hard to find today, earning her the nickname “swamp woman.” Valedictorian at Coral Gables High School, she was raised in a house her parents built near the Florida Everglades. She would walk around barefoot surrounded by animals, peacocks and donkeys that would come in and out of the house. Living near the Everglades she learned to be independent and developed thick skin. 

“That house is a symbol to me, that you can do anything you really want to if it’s the right thing to do and you put your mind to it,” said Reno in 1993.

In 1978, she was appointed state attorney for what was then Dade County and held the office through four elections. In that “wonderful and rambunctious city,” she called Miami later in her Senate confirmation hearing, she cut her teeth handling high-profile cases, including Arthur McDuffie’s.

Four Miami-Dade police officers were acquitted by an all-white jury of charges in the beating death of McDuffie, a black man, in 1980. The tension surrounding that case broke out in a full-scale three-day riot that left much of Miami’s Liberty City smoldering.

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Credit Miami Herlad
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Miami Herlad
The black plumes of smoke from the McDuffie riots could be seen from 15 miles away.

“I have lost what little faith I’ve been able to maintain in this system as of today,” said Marvin Dunn to Chanel 4 news after the announcement of the verdict. He and others in the black community blamed Reno and called for her to stand aside while an investigation of her office was conducted. She refused to leave her post despite ongoing criticisms from Dunn and others.

Today, Dunn says he admired the way she handled the case--coming in person to every community meeting he can remember during and after the riots and facing her critics.

“Janet Reno would have prosecuted her own mama if she felt she had a reason to do it. She was the most objective, tough-minded, fair-minded person I’ve ever known,” said Dunn after hearing the news of her passing.

But the backlash from the McDuffie case gave her a taste of what was to come in the other high-profile cases she oversaw.

In her 1993 confirmation hearing for U.S. attorney general she gently acknowledged the ground she was breaking – she would become the first woman to hold that office.

“I want to remember what it was like not to be able to get a job because I was a woman,” said Reno, “and do everything I can to see that Americans have equal opportunity.

Reno first challenge was an inherited problem in Waco, Texas. A religious group suspected of weapons violations and child abuse was engaged in a standoff with the FBI. Reno ordered them in after 51 days, leaving almost 90 people dead.

In 2000, Reno authorized agents to storm the Little Havana home where González was living with relatives in order to return him to his father in Cuba.

Shortly before Elián González was rescued in an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean off Fort Lauderdale just before Thanksgiving 1999, Miami Cuban-Americans had shut down the city. Furious at the Coast Guard’s apprehension of Cuban rafters close to Miami’s shores, they blocked off the city’s major thoroughfares for an entire day.

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Credit Associated Press
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Associated Press
Elián González was removed forcibly from his uncle's house in Little Havana on April 22, 2000.

Then Attorney General Janet Reno was all too mindful of that volatility when Elián suddenly became an international custody dispute – the little boy’s Cuban father vs. Miami Cubans who insisted he remain with relatives in Little Havana. The legal issue was clear: Under international law, Elián had to be returned to his dad in Cardenas, Cuba. But to Miami Cubans it was an apocalyptic moral issue – and a means of sticking it to their mortal enemy, Fidel Castro.

Most legal observers today believe Reno made a serious error, albeit with good intentions. In order to avoid another Miami conflagration, she decided to give the Cuban exiles their day in court. But that day turned into months – a bizarre, seven-month long debacle that became 24/7 cable news fodder and made Miami look like a rogue republic in the Everglades as the exiles refused at every turn to give Elián up.

In the end, Reno’s strategy backfired. Realizing the exiles had no intention of handing the boy over, she had to order U.S. agents into Little Havana in the middle of the night in April 2000 to seize him in a raid that sparked massive protests in Miami. The legal battle, however, would last another three months before Elián and his father could finally fly back to Cuba.

She angered both Cuban exiles – who never forgave her for the raid – and the rest of the nation and the world, which came to view Miami if not the U.S. as an international scofflaw bowing to an unhinged swing-state voter bloc. Some say national sentiment about Elián González’s case contributed to the outcome of the 2000 presidential elections, which handed a victory not to the incumbent party but to Republican George W. Bush.

With the change of administration, Reno was replaced as U.S. attorney general. She unsuccessfully ran for Florida governor in 2002, defeated by a narrow margin in the primary. She continued on the lecture circuit talking about education and the justice system.

Attorney John Hogan worked at Janet Reno’s side for nearly 20 years, at the State Attorney’s Office in Miami and later at the Justice Department. Hogan says, Reno had a straightforward approach:

“As far as how the public may react, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, so you might as well just do what you think is right and then go from there,” said Hogan.

"She didn’t act like she couldn't do the full job; she did everything" - John Kozyak, chairmen of the Parkinson Foundation

Hogan says Reno was a meticulous litigator with a flawless memory and a penchant for to-do-lists. His favorite story about Reno’s tenure as attorney general has to do with the Parkinson’s disease that ultimately took her life; she was diagnosed in 1995.

Every Thursday, Reno had a standing invitation to reporters to come to Justice Department with any questions they wanted to ask.

“About an hour before it was supposed to start, she called me and the press secretary in and said, ‘I went to the doctor’s yesterday. I’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s,and I’m going to announce it to the country right now,” recalls Hogan. “She said, You’ve noticed my hands shaking—it’s Parkinson’s disease. And then, let’s move on.”

Hogan says the press secretary and reporters both were flabbergasted, but Janet Reno thought the country deserved to know. And she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her otherwise.

Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995 and lived with it openly while in office, refusing to hide tremors in her hands as many others with the condition do. She would not put her hands in pockets or hold them behind her back. She refused, however, to be a spokesperson for the disease. But her normalization of Parkinson’s, people say, helped educate the public about the disease.

John Kozyak was Reno’s friend and chairman of the Parkinson’s Foundation. He said her living and continuing in her role as attorney general with Parkinson’s helped so many other struggling with the disease.

“She didn’t act like she couldn’t do the full job; she did everything,” said Kozyak, adding that she also faced criticism for this.

“You have to respect Janet Reno,” he said. “She was an amazingly bright, genius, kind, unassuming person. She was literally one of a kind and the whole country will miss her and the Parkinson’s community will probably miss her the most."