Fla. prosecutor is Justice pick Reno wins praise as 'crime fighter'

February 12, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton tried yesterday to remedy weeks of woe in his search for an attorney general by picking Janet Reno, 54, an energetic, sometimes intimidating 6-foot-1-inch prosecutor with sharp political instincts and a raft of influential supporters.

Ms. Reno, who by many accounts has been a conspicuous success for 15 years in a high-visibility public job considered one of Florida's toughest, was introduced by the president in the White House Rose Garden as his latest choice to head the beleaguered Justice Department.

Early reactions here suggested that the president this time had found a nominee likely to be greeted by the Senate Judiciary Committee as ready for the job of putting back together a powerful department of government widely perceived to be weakened by low morale, political infighting and recurrent scandal.

After failing with two others he had wanted in the attorney general's post, Mr. Clinton moved this time to a national leader in criminal law reform whose office has won a steady stream of guilty verdicts while she personally has won over a host of local adversaries.

She is the state's attorney in Miami, a city often troubled by racial and ethnic division, by police-community hostility and by some of the nation's most entrenched drug crime. The president called her "a front-line crime fighter" with "unquestioned integrity."

One of her closest friends and a former law partner, Miami attorney John Edward Smith, remarked yesterday, "If you wanted someone in the attorney general's office, a woman, who has the plain-speaking, fearless style of Harry Truman, you'd have Janet Reno."

Ms. Reno does have her challengers in South Florida, and their complaints may pose some questions as she goes through a Senate review process that could be rigorous.

Prompt hearings were promised by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Some members of that panel are worried over the effects of delay in getting a chief for the department; much federal legal business has been kept almost on hold.

Some of Ms. Reno's critics in the Miami area have suggested that she has gone easy on public corruption, some have said she has been more political than professional in her job, and others have said her reputation as a healer of racial tension is much exaggerated.

But Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who has known Ms. Reno for years, praised her selection and said her talents and her reputation were just what the Justice Department must have.

"The department needs to be renewed and restored," he said. It will be, he predicted, because "she stands for professionalism" and "also has a political understanding."

"It [the nomination] will play very well in the Senate," he suggested.

Although Mr. Clinton's first nominee, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, and his apparent second choice, federal Judge Kimba M. Wood, were taken out of contention amid controversy over hiring illegal aliens as live-in baby sitters, both had met with some skepticism -- in the Senate and at the Justice Department -- about their credentials to be the government's top lawyer.

The new nominee, Ms. Reno, is described by those who know her as a genuinely different choice for the attorney generalship.

Unlike Ms. Baird and Ms. Wood, she has never been married and said yesterday she had never employed illegal aliens.

In Miami, Ms. Reno has run an office of prosecutors with a staff of 900, has repeatedly bested her political opponents by wide margins at the polls, has clung to a high-pressure local job rather than yield to repeated urgings to go after higher office and has met controversy stubbornly and head-on.

She also is said to have very useful connections to Hillary Rodham Clinton through Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund.

Her background is a politically salable mix of law-and-order toughness, with her office winning a strong percentage of their prosecutions, and civil rights advocacy, working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in South Florida.

She also has been getting over and around barriers to women, being the first woman to get a law partnership in a major firm in South Florida and the first woman to be a state's attorney. And, as a prosecutor, she has put special stress on protecting women and children from abuse.

Although she was lambasted for failing to get a conviction on police attacks on black youths in the Liberty City area of Miami, her friends say she has since worked hard to mend relations with minorities.

She was a key figure in the work of the American Bar Association's special task force on minorities and justice, set up following the police beating of black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the race riots that followed the jury verdict acquitting the officers.

That panel was headed by Talbot D'Alemberte, a Florida lawyer and then president of the ABA -- a longtime friend of Ms. Reno's.

To illustrate what he said was her unusual capacity for winning over critics, Mr. D'Alemberte recalled her successful prosecution Miami's very popular black school superintendent, Johnny Jones, on charges of stealing from the school system.

She was accused of being a racist at first, but after the televised trial, "All that talk just stopped," he said.

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