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Janet Reno Dead: First Woman to Serve as U.S. Attorney General Dies at 78

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, has died at the age of 78, the Associated Press reports. Reno passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease on Monday, November 7.

In 1995, during Bill Clinton‘s presidency, Reno announced that she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She spent her final days in Miami, Florida, surrounded by family and friends.

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The Miami native graduated from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry in 1960 before she attended Harvard Law School. In 1993, she was sworn in as attorney general during Clinton’s term and served until 2001. (In 2001, her service finished when George W. Bush was elected president. She went on to travel in a new red pickup truck.)

Janet Reno
Janet Reno

“It’s an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud,” Reno said at the ceremony at the time, via NBC News.

Bill and Hillary Clinton paid tribute to Reno on Monday. “Hillary and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Janet Reno, an extraordinary public servant who dedicated her life to advancing justice, equality, and innovations in criminal justice that would save and lift lives,” the former president, 70, said in a statement to Us Weekly. “As Attorney General for all eight years of my Presidency, Janet worked tirelessly to make our communities safer, protect the vulnerable, and to strike the right balance between seeking justice and avoiding abuse of power. From her work as a prosecutor in Florida pioneering “drug courts” that gave first-time offenders the chance to avoid jail time, to her leadership enforcing the Violence Against Women Act and Brady Bill as Attorney General, she never forgot that policy matters and makes a difference in the lives of real people. It’s fitting that she spent her last years with family and friends, living in the house her mother built with her own hands. Janet was her mother’s daughter. I will always be grateful for her service, counsel, and friendship.”

Additionally, Reno served as a prosecutor for Dade County, Florida, from 1978 to 1993. Per NBC News, she once said that she wanted to become a lawyer “because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do.”

Janet Reno Bill Clinton
U.S. President Bill Clinton names Miami prosecutor Janet Reno attorney general on February 11, 1993.

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Reno, who famously told reporters “I don’t do spin,” faced some criticism during her attorney general tenure. In 1993, she approved the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, which led to a 51-day standoff between agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and members of the religious sect. The siege killed four agents and 82 Branch Davidians.

Seven years later, Reno again came under fire for her part in the case of 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned while trying to boat from Cuba to Florida. After negotiations failed, she authorized armed federal agents to take the boy away from his relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

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Many were outraged by the incident, but Reno was unapologetic. “We have been to great lengths to resolve this case in the least disruptive manner possible,” she said afterward during a press conference.

Reno, who never married, later joined the board of the New York–based Innocence Project following her retirement. The organization helps to free prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing.

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