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After an Ivy League education — an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Cornell University in 1960, followed by her LL.B. from Harvard in 1963, as one of only 16 women in a class of 500-plus — Janet Reno faced a job market that was not particularly favorable for women.

Janet Reno

However, once in the "system," she quickly gained respect for such ideas as reforming the juvenile justice system in Florida, putting pressure on fathers owing child support, and establishing the Miami Drug Court while in the Dade County State Attorney's office.

That success in the public sector attracted the attention of President Bill Clinton, who named her as the first woman to serve as the U.S. Attorney General, in March 1993.

The early years

Reno was born into a family of investigators — her father, Henry, had a 43-year career as police reporter for the Miami Herald after immigrating from Denmark; her mother, Jane, became an investigative reporter for the Miami News after her children had grown up and moved away.

Janet's early accolades included being the debate champ at Coral Gables High School and becoming the president of the Women's Self Government Association while at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which paid for her room and board during her term in office.

Reno's agenda

Like most civilians appointed to a Cabinet post, Reno took office with rose-colored promises to:

  • Reduce crime and violence by incarcerating serious, repeat offenders and finding alternative forms of punishment for first time, non-violent offenders.
  • Focus on prevention and early intervention efforts to keep children away from gangs, drugs, and violence and on the road to strong, healthy, and self-sufficient lives.
  • Enforce civil rights laws to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.
  • Ensure that the Department of Justice reflect a diverse government, making integrity, excellence, and professionalism the hallmarks of the department.
  • The ride through two Clinton administrations was far from smooth, however. She was often the lightning rod for a number of controversies that cropped up, including:

  • The campaign against violence in the media, which focused on what kinds of materials and/or programming were suitable for children.
  • The Branch Davidian standoff and fire in Waco, Texas, which ended in the deaths of 80 church members, including their leader, David Koresh.
  • The ongoing "Mena (Arkansas) Affair," which was allegedly part of the Iran-Contra Affair.
  • The return of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, after a protracted custody and immigration battle that included the controversial siezing of the child by federal agents.
  • The ban of marijuana use among Rastafarians (as one of their religious sacraments).
  • Abortion issues — Reno led civil and criminal lawsuits against anti-abortion protesters and activists in many states when the Clinton administration perceived them to be hindering access to abortion.
  • Refusing to prosecute cases against producers of pornography based on First Amendment (Free Speech) rights.
  • The investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing in which Timothy McVeigh was convicted in the deaths of 168 people.
  • The Unabomber case, in which Ted Kaczynski was convicted of a series of mail bombings that killed three people and injuring several others.
  • The Whitewater investigation, which involved some questionable real estate transactions allegedly undertaken by President Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas.
  • Her reluctance, some Republicans charge, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign finance abuses.
  • In retrospect, Reno made her mistakes as well as basked in the glow of her triumphs. She showed that even her tough-minded, sometimes intimidating, manner emanating from her six foot, three inch stature, could have a laugh at her own humanity, as exemplified by a spoof of her on Saturday Night Live; Will Farrell did the honors.

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