Janet Reno, first female US attorney general, dies at 78

Former Attorney General Janet Reno in 2004. (AP Photo/Charlie Dharapak)
Former Attorney General Janet Reno in 2004. (AP Photo/Charlie Dharapak)

(CNN) — Janet Reno, former U.S. attorney general under President Bill Clinton, died Monday morning following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, her sister Maggy Hurchalla said. She was 78.

Reno, the nation’s first-ever female attorney general, served in the Clinton White House from 1993 to 2001.

In a statement, former President Bill Clinton said that he and his wife, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, were “deeply saddened” by the passing of Reno, calling her “an extraordinary public servant who dedicated her life to advancing justice, equality, and innovations in criminal justice that would save and lift lives.

“As Attorney General for all eight years of my Presidency, Janet worked tirelessly to make our communities safer, protect the vulnerable, and to strike the right balance between seeking justice and avoiding abuse of power,” Clinton said in the statement, listing some of her top accomplishments.

“It’s fitting that she spent her last years with family and friends, living in the house her mother built with her own hands. Janet was her mother’s daughter. I will always be grateful for her service, counsel, and friendship.”

Janet Reno takes the oath as attorney general during a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1993, while President Bill Clinton watches. (AP Photo)
Janet Reno takes the oath as attorney general during a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1993, while President Bill Clinton watches. (AP Photo)

As part of the Clinton administration, Reno oversaw the high-profile convictions of numerous bombers including Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist infamously known as the “Unabomber;” Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for their roles in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“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,” Reno said one month after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Reno’s time in office was also bookended with a pair of major controversies that gripped the country. In 1993, she took office as the Waco, Texas, standoff was already underway. On the 51st day of the standoff, the attorney general ordered federal agents to raid the compound — a decision that resulted in the death of approximately 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect.

“The buck stops with me,” Reno said after the incident. She later said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that her decision was “obviously wrong.”

In April 2000, Reno played a pivotal role in the saga of six-year-old Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez. Gonzalez, found off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in November 1999, was the only survivor among a group of 13 Cuban migrants trying to make it to the U.S. The incident sparked an international custody dispute between Gonzalez’s relatives in the US and his father in Cuba.

When Clinton’s administration was rocked by the Whitewater scandal, Reno was the person tasked with appointing special prosecutor Robert Fiske to lead the probe in 1994.

In Clinton’s second term — months before his impeachment — the Republican-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to cite Reno for contempt of Congress for failing to hand over key memos.

Reno eventually provided those documents. Congress never moved forward with a vote on the matter.

Born in 1938, Reno grew up in Miami, Florida, with parents who both worked as reporters for Miami newspapers. After attending Cornell University for her undergraduate degree, Reno enrolled at Harvard University for law school in the early 1960s. During her first year, she heard one of her heroes, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, speak at the Sanders Theater.

“She was so wonderful and her voice was still so clear and so magnificent,” Reno later recalled in a 1993 speech to the Women’s Bar Association. “And I went up to her afterwards, and I said, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt, I think you are perfectly wonderful.’ And I will never forget her looking at me and saying, ‘Why, thank you, my dear. Those words mean so much to me.’ And she seemed to mean it.”

After law school, Reno worked for four years as an associate at Brigham & Brigham, before becoming partner at Lewis & Reno, where she stayed for four years. In 1971, Reno decided to work with the Florida House of Representatives as a staff director.

After a brief return to the private sector, she was appointed as Florida’s State Attorney in Miami, becoming the first woman to ever hold that position. Reno stayed in the job for about 15 years until Clinton tapped her to become the 78th U.S. attorney general.

At a ceremony to honor Reno in 2009, then-Attorney General Eric Holder praised his predecessor for her tenacity and tireless work ethic during her eight years in the job.

“I don’t know how many times she said to me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?'” Holder said. “It was never what’s the easy thing, what’s the political thing, or the expedient thing to do.”

In 2002, Reno ran to become Florida’s governor, but narrowly lost in the Democratic primary.

Reno died at her home in Miami. She had battled Parkinson’s disease for 20 years.

CNN’s Joe Sutton and Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report.

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