DURHAM — Janet Reno once overruled staffers in the U.S. Justice Department to face reporters eager to grill someone over the department’s handling of the standoff in Waco, Texas.
It was important, she told them, for the person ultimately responsible for the fatal assault on the Branch Davidian compound to give a public accounting.
She had been reviled before, as the chief state prosecutor in Miami. She would be again, as attorney general, when government agents raided a Miami apartment and snatched away a young boy named Elian Gonzalez to send him to his father in Cuba.
So if life itself is at all just, Reno might now get an appreciative audience once in a while, as she did at Duke Law School on Monday.
Reno’s appearance was part of Duke Law School’s Great Lives in the Law series. She was interviewed in a packed lecture hall by Duke law professor Walter Dellinger, who was her assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel and then acting solicitor general.
She described her tumultuous years at the helm of Justice and spoke against the death penalty and for stem cell research. However, she said, “I’m prejudiced” on the issue of stem cells’ prospects for treating Parkinson’s disease, which she has.
She gained an early respect for the law from her parents, who were both newspaper reporters in Miami, she said.
She was one of 16 women in her Harvard Law School class of 1963 and was initially denied a position in a law firm because of her gender, she said. She was the first female U.S. attorney general when named by President Bill Clinton, and remained in his cabinet through his second term.
In 1978, she was appointed and soon after elected state attorney for Dade County, Fla., which includes Miami. In 1980, a motorcyclist, Arthur McDuffie, was chased by Miami police and beaten to death. There were no independent witnesses and inconclusive testimony by officers.
“We tried our level best” to prosecute officers charged with the death, she said.
But a jury acquitted them, the city erupted in violence and her offices were torched. Soon after, she met with a community relations board and noted that anyone seeking her ouster had a ready-made opportunity: She was up for re-election that year.
“Nobody ran against me,” she said. “My mother said it was because nobody wanted the job.”
And by speaking out about housing and enforcing child-support obligations, she proved her dedication to the broader issues of social justice, she said.
In the Branch Davidian affair, which occurred a little more than two months after she was confirmed as attorney general, “The tragedy is, we will never know what the right thing was, because that went to the grave with David Koresh,” the leader of the heavily armed sect, she said.
The FBI told her it had exhausted prospects for a negotiated settlement weeks after the Davidians had killed four government agents and wounded 16, that an assault team standing by would need replacement soon, and that the colony had enough food and water to hold out another 12 months.
“We couldn’t walk away from it; we couldn’t stay there forever,” Reno said.
In the Elian Gonzalez case, the Justice Department argued against “I believe, 10 different teams of lawyers” representing the boy’s relatives in Florida. In 1999, Elian had been rescued after the boat carrying him to the United States from Cuba sank and his mother drowned.
Using the standard of the child’s best interest, Reno, as supervisor of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ordered him returned to his father in Cuba, and the courts agreed.
Despite widespread support for Elian’s U.S. relatives, “one of the moments I’ll most remember” was seeing photos of Elian smiling when reunited with his father, she said.
“I feel almost joyful about it, because that’s what people came to this country for, to be able to stand on the street corner and call me names.”
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