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Woman Chosen as Attorney General

By Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post


President Clinton Thursday named veteran Miami prosecutor Janet Reno to be his attorney general, selecting a woman he described as "a front-line crime fighter" of "unquestioned integrity" to fill the vacancy that has plagued the first three weeks of his administration.

Announcing his nomination in a Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton said his selection had been guided "somewhat, but not entirely" by the desire to name the first female attorney general. Clinton said the position "was not set aside" for a woman and that he "seriously considered" at least four men for the job. But he said that he "thought it would be a good and an interesting thing to do" to name a woman to the position and said that if he had it to do over again, "I would have called Janet Reno on November the 5th."

In December, Clinton nominated corporate lawyer Zoe E. Baird, who was forced to withdraw because she had violated immigration and tax laws in hiring illegal immigrants. He was poised to name federal judge Kimba M. Wood before she withdrew last week after the disclosure that she had also employed an illegal immigrant to care for her child.

Reno, who is not married and has no children, said, "I've never hired an illegal alien and I think I've paid all my Social Security taxes," adding with a smile, "Certainly in the vetting process in the last week, we've covered everything." An administration official said Clinton decided Thursday morning to name Reno, after interviewing her Tuesday.

The Florida native, 54, turned aside a question about how she felt about being appointed to a position that was seen as having been reserved for a woman, saying simply, "I'm just delighted to be here and I'm going to try my level best."

She said her efforts would include "restoring civil rights enforcement as one of the top priorities of the department," seeking "to protect America's children from abuse and violence" and establishing "diversion programs" to give nonviolent offenders "a new start" while incarcerating dangerous and career criminals.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said he welcomed the nomination and would schedule a hearing "as expeditiously as possible." But committee sources said they did not expect a hearing before next month.

Reno, who once "swore I would never be a prosecutor because I thought they were more interested in securing convictions than in seeking justice," has been the elected chief prosecutor in Dade County since 1978. She supervises a 900-person office that handles more than 120,000 cases annually.

Reno's start in the job was marred by riots that broke out after the 1979 acquittal of five police officers in the beating death of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie. She has also been criticized for losing several high-profile public corruption cases and for failing to bring charges in other local scandals.

But after her appointment to the position, she waged five successful campaigns for the job -- a fact noted admiringly by Clinton Thursday -- and worked to cement good relations with the black and Hispanic communities in Miami. She pushed for a special court to handle drug cases, cracked down on parents who fail to pay child support and presided over the expansion of the county prosecutor's office into one of the largest in the country.

Noting that Reno's phone number is listed -- unusual for a prosecutor -- Clinton said, "She has lived the kind of life in real contact with the toughest problems of this country that I think will serve her very well as the nation's chief law enforcement officer."

Before becoming state attorney, Reno was a partner in a prestigious Miami firm that, she noted in a 1984 book on women lawyers, had first refused to hire her after she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963 because she was a woman.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Reno offered forthright answers that contrasted with Baird's reticence when Clinton nominated her to the position Dec. 24. She said she was "personally opposed" to the death penalty but "probably asked for it as much as any prosecutor in the country" and "will advocate for it as the law of the land in particular situations."

She described herself as "pro-choice" on abortion rights and -- asked if she considers herself a feminist -- said, "My mother always told me to do my best, to think my best and to do right, and to consider myself a person."