After stumbling twice in his efforts to name the first woman to the nation's chief appointed law enforcement position, President Clinton has selected Janet Reno, a veteran prosecutor from Miami. She is long on management expertise and integrity--two qualities that have been sorely missing at the top of the Justice Department.
If confirmed as attorney general, Reno will take charge of more than 90,000 employees who work for Justice, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Prisons. She will head a department demoralized by more than a decade of lackluster leadership and compromised by an inappropriate allegiance to political ideology over law.
During the less than satisfactory tenures of attorneys general Edwin Meese III, Richard L. Thornburgh and William P. Barr, the White House and its political operatives controlled the department. Justice was misused to advance a conservative agenda on abortion, civil rights, the environment and crime with little regard for laws or rights established by the courts and Congress.
Reno enters the job at a time when the department must regain public confidence, shaken deeply by the sleepy prosecutions in the savings and loan scandal, the laxity in the awesome BCCI bank case and revelations about the Atlanta-based bank that allegedly engaged in improper transfer of federal monies to Iraq.
To cure the systemic ills, the new attorney general must, with the President, select senior staff, managers and top lawyers on the basis of integrity rather than ideology.
Before long, the new attorney general must review the investigation of FBI Director William S. Sessions, who has been accused of misusing numerous perks and benefits. Her report to the President should indicate her stance on public ethics, and allow her to put to rest any concerns about her reluctance to try public corruption cases in Florida.
Reno has promised to make civil rights a priority. That alone would undo a decade of reversals and indifference. She must be particularly tough on police brutality cases to reassure a nation made wary by the Rodney G. King case. Success in that area would also allay any lingering concerns regarding her sensitivity to black Americans early in her Florida career. Her inability to convict four white police officers accused of beating to death Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance agent who had been stopped for an alleged traffic violation, touched off Miami's worst riots.
INS, the stepchild of the department, also needs a firm hand and more resources. In her native Miami, Reno has seen firsthand the huge challenges posed by legal and illegal immigration. Unmarried and childless, Reno escaped the "nannygate" immigrant problems that doomed Zoe Baird, the President's first choice for attorney general. A second prominent woman considered for the post, federal judge Kimba Wood, also encountered some trouble with the issue, even though the judge had obeyed all laws. It would be a considerable, and delightful, irony indeed if the third woman tapped by Clinton--a woman with apparently no conflicts whatsoever in this area--worked to effect a long-overdue reform of the nation's troubled and divisive immigration laws.