Judith Hicks Stiehm is a political science professor at Florida International University. She is writing a biography of Janet Reno.
Janet Reno grew up where paved roads ended in an un-air-conditioned home literally built by her mother. It had two bedrooms for a family of six, and no door on the bathroom until a family friend arrived with tools and lumber. Her dad, a crime reporter for the Miami Herald, had many a tale about lawless Miami. Her mother worked as a reporter and engaged in atypical mothering. Breakfast sometimes included ice cream and dinner could feature competition in poetry recitations. There were only two rules for the four children: tell the truth and be kind.
Except for her college and law school years, and except for her tour as attorney general of the United States, the house her mother built is where Janet lived. She attended segregated public schools. Black students were scarce at Cornell University. She was one of just 15 women in her Harvard Law School class of more than 500, and on graduation she was offered an opportunity in Washington. She turned it down, choosing to come home to Miami, where she did not find opportunity immediately.
After a stint with a small firm, a job helping to draft a revision of the judicial section of the Florida Constitution, a lost election, three years with the state attorney’s office and several at a white-shoe firm that had previously rejected her application, Reno was appointed Dade County’s state attorney, its prosecutor in chief. There was a lot of crime to prosecute, as Miami was very much in its “Miami Vice” days. Also, there would soon be riots over the embarrassing acquittal of police who had beaten a black man to death. Eighteen died, hundreds were injured, thousands were arrested and damages were estimated at $100 million. But Reno’s eye was always as much on solving problems and preventing crime as it was on punishing crime. This included items such as enforcing housing codes in rental units, supporting neighborhood resource teams, and furnishing car seats for children when parents couldn’t afford them. Also, Reno was determined not to convict the innocent. That view was reinforced when she was asked to review a case in a neighboring jurisdiction in which a field worker was convicted of poisoning his eight children. He served many years in prison even though some years later a servant in the house at the time confessed. Reno’s investigation found serious fault with the trial, and the man was released. She became active in the now-national Innocence Project.
Reno was no drama queen, but she participated in a number of dramas: the Waco siege of the Branch Davidians, the Oklahoma City bombing, the impeachment of the president who appointed her and the return of Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father. She always did what she believed right, even when it was unpopular, and she always took responsibility for mistakes. Still, she won election after election and was appointed to high office, all the while telling the truth and being kind.
Read more on this topic:
Joel Achenbach: R.I.P Janet Reno, a formidable Floridian