UPDATE with statement from President Obama: Janet Reno, the Florida native who became the first woman ever to serve as the Attorney General for the United States, has passed away. The long-serving Reno died from complications of Parkinson’s disease this morning. She was 78.
“Janet Reno was an American original, a public servant whose intellect, integrity, and fierce commitment to justice helped shape our nation’s legal landscape,” President Barack Obama said today (read his full statement below).
A Harvard Law School graduate, Reno worked in the Florida state judiciary before being appointed Attorney General by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her eight-year tenure was particularly marked by two controversial events: the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas which left 76 people dead; and the 2000 seizing by federal agents of young Cuban refugee Elián González.
Also notably during her time as the Attorney General, prosecutions were initiated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, helping to lay the groundwork for the pursuit of terrorists in the 21st century.
The 6′ 1″ Reno was also the subject of a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live in which Will Ferrell dressed up as her and hosted Janet Reno’s Dance Party surrounded by “teenagers” in her basement (aka “the deck of a battleship”). Darrell Hammond appeared as Clinton, urging her to rejoin society while other guests included Donna Shalala (played by Kevin Spacey), and Rudy Giuliani as himself.
A good sport who was in on the joke, Reno appeared in the final installment of the sketch on January 20, 2001. Facing off with a similarly dressed Ferrell, she said, “I like your dress, Janet.” Noting his upset at having to say goodbye as Reno was leaving office, Ferrell’s Reno asked the real one, “What do you do when you get sad?” Reno herself responded, “I just dance. Now, hit it!”
The NYT notes that comedy couldn’t obscure Reno’s achievements, having presided over the Justice Department in a time of economic growth, falling crime rates and mounting security threats.
Here is the White House statement from Obama this morning:
When Janet Reno arrived in Washington in 1993, the city had never seen anyone like her before – and hasn’t since. She rose from a childhood on the edge of the Everglades to become our nation’s first female Attorney General, a position she held for longer than anyone in 150 years.
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. In her 15 years as Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor, she helped reform juvenile justice, created Miami’s drug court, and made protecting children the center of her work. As Attorney General, she insisted on transparency and accountability. Throughout her tenure, marked by high-profile, complicated cases, Janet was unflappable, never losing her candor, sense of humor, or love of kayaking on the Potomac. Above all, she was committed to the defining mission of the Justice Department – ensuring that all Americans are treated equal under the law.
Janet Reno was an American original, a public servant whose intellect, integrity, and fierce commitment to justice helped shape our nation’s legal landscape. Her legacy lives on in a generation of lawyers she inspired, the ordinary lives she touched, and a nation that is more just. Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to her family and all who loved and admired her.