Janet Reno, the first female Attorney General of the United States, has had a life filled with “firsts.” Reno graduated from Cornell University in 1960 with a degree in chemistry, having worked her way through school as a waitress and dormitory supervisor. She then earned her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1963, one of sixteen women in a class of more than 500. She eventually became a partner in a law firm that had previously denied her a position because she was a woman.
Her first entry into government work was in 1971 as staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives, where she helped revise the Florida court system. In 1978, she became the first woman to head a county prosecutor’s office in Florida. As Dade County State Attorney, Reno was the first Florida prosecutor to assign lawyers to collect child-support payments from deadbeat fathers. Winning election for four terms as a Democrat in the heavily conservative, Republican Dade County, Reno helped establish the Miami Drug Court, which has served as a model for other courts, helped reform the juvenile justice system, and focused attention on needed prevention programs for children.
Appointed United States Attorney General by President Clinton in 1993, Reno worked to reduce crime and violence; to enhance prevention and early intervention efforts to keep children away from gangs, drugs, and violence; to enforce civil rights to ensure equal opportunities for all; to prosecute violations of ecological statutes; and to build a Justice Department that strives for excellence and professionalism. She faced many controversial decisions, including the confrontation with the Branch Davidian religious cult in Waco, Texas. Despite some attacks on Reno for this action, Reno won respect from average Americans by unflinchingly taking responsibility for the operation. Similarly, Reno made the difficult decision to raid the home of Elian Gonzalez’s relatives so the six-year old Cuban could be returned to his father’s custody. Again, some tried to second-guess Reno’s decision, but she remained firm.
Reno’s childhood taught her to strive for excellence as well as stand for absolute honesty. Her father was a crusading reporter for the Miami Herald while her mother, also a journalist, built the family’s home and was known to wrestle alligators. Significantly, her mother influenced her with this homily: “Good, better, best. Don’t ever rest until good is better and better is best.”