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Legal System Should Work for All, Reno Urges Justice Department : Law: The new attorney general, in a highly personal speech, says guiding principle for her staff will be: 'What's the right thing to do?'

April 07, 1993|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a highly personal speech, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno declared Tuesday that, for too many poor Americans, "the law means little or nothing" and the Constitution is no more than "just a piece of paper."

Reno, in remarks explaining her goals to Justice Department employees, said that "our courts provide access to the rich" and that lawyers "give legal advice to large corporations" more often than they help most Americans.

The courts and Justice Department lawyers "are too often not there for the average American who does not know how to deal with the paperwork, the rules and regulations, the eligibility requirements, the licensing procedures and the web of laws designed to make men free," Reno said.

In an 11-minute speech that drew several bursts of applause, Reno described herself as "the new kid on the block," and said: "While I'm the attorney general we will address each issue with one question: what's the right thing to do?"

She acknowledged that "sometimes, doing the right thing is very politically unpopular" and that sometimes "it will be painful for it will, of necessity, hurt someone. But with strength and courage let us face that question unafraid and together seek justice for all."

On a cold, gray day, the new attorney general then plunged into the outdoor audience without a coat to shake hands and exchange thoughts. As she worked the crowd campaign-style for another 15 minutes, she seemed every bit the Dade County (Fla.) state attorney who won election five times.

Reno conveyed a distinctly different message from the hard-line certainty of punishment emphasized by her predecessors in the George Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations.

Taking note of Americans' concern with violence in the streets, Reno said: "We cannot respond with demagogic promises to build more jails and put all the criminals away."

Instead, she called for using the limited resources at all levels of government "to put the real criminals away while providing alternative sanctions for those people who are going to be coming back to the community anyway in a fairly short time."

Reno suggested harnessing the federal government's power "to make sure that innocent people are not charged or even tainted by our actions and that the guilty are convicted according to principles of strict due process and fair play and with adherence to our Constitution." Reno also had a critical word for lawyers using "obscure legalese" instead of "the small, old words we all understand. Too often lawyers have made the law a mystery. We must make it a lamp that shines the way."

She said that government should become "user-friendly, so you don't need a lawyer to understand what you need to do to deal with your government. Working with the best legal minds in America, we need to develop new and creative reforms that open our courts to all our people and give to every American a reason to believe that the Constitution is a living document that means something."

Recalling her own childhood in Florida, Reno told of her mother, who recently died, teaching her and her siblings how to play baseball and to play fair.

"There is no child care in the world that will ever be a substitute for what that lady was in our lives," Reno said. She promised to introduce "new attitudes and programs" at the 93,000-employee department "that will enable people to achieve their professional goals while having the opportunity to spend quality time with their families."

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