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Gorelick: Reno "Led...From This Deep Sense of Right and Wrong"

November 7, 2016

Janet RenoEarly Monday, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 78.

Reno, the country’s first female attorney general, served under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. During her tenure she played a key role in the Waco, Texas, standoff and in the international custody fight over Elian Gonzalez. Reno also oversaw major cases, including the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Former D.C. Bar president Jamie Gorelick, who was the deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice from 1994 to 1997, spoke about her relationship with Reno in a 2011 interview with Washington Lawyer.

Tell me about your relationship with Janet Reno with whom you worked while at the Justice Department.

I had gotten to know her in a very artificial circumstance. When then President-elect Clinton picked Janet to become attorney general, she did not really know any of his people so they needed to put together a confirmation team for her. At the time, I was already going to be at the Defense Department, so there would not have been any issue for me in participating on her team—as there would have been if I had been in private practice—and so I was asked to take on that job. I got to know Janet by asking lots of personal questions in preparation for her hearing, and by preparing her for questions on issues that she hadn’t dealt with when she was a state’s attorney.

We spent a lot of time talking through issues, determining how she would answer questions, dealing with the many follow-up questions about her that the Senate had. I came to like her enormously, and we developed a good and close friendship. When she and her then deputy Phil Heymann decided to part ways, she called and asked if I would allow her to put my name into the White House to become her deputy. I told her I thought she was crazy because it was hard enough for the administration to have a female attorney general, but to have the top two people in the department be women was a bridge too far, even for a progressive Democratic president. So I was surprised by the decision to nominate me.

What did you learn about her and from her?

She had an enormous appetite and capacity for learning. She made decisions by really burrowing into issues. That meant that her decisions had great intellectual integrity because she really paid attention; she was her own quality control. The disadvantage in a job like attorney general is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to luxuriate in each of these issues, so what she and I agreed to was that I would try to get the issues presented to her in their essence so she wouldn’t have to spend the time boiling them down and instead could spend the time understanding the hard questions and reaching her own judgment. I think that helped her and it was also a very interesting job for me. What I learned from her is about leading with your values. She has very deeply held values that go to the importance of our system of justice in this country, our access to it, and the responsibilities of a prosecutor. She led, as attorney general, from this deep sense of right and wrong, which is very powerful.