WASHINGTON — Janet Reno, the former attorney general in the Clinton administration, received a lifetime achievement award Friday from the American Judicature Society, a non-partisan justice advocacy network.
Reno, 70, received the award at a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building surrounded by family, former colleagues and others who'd crossed her path during her time in public service. Several of them are affiliated with legal advocacy groups like the Justice Project, which helps exonerate those who are wrongfully convicted.
Speaking slowly and taking the stage without the assistance of a black cane she uses because of the effects of Parkinson Disease, Reno praised violence prevention programs and the current direction of the Justice Department.
"Now I can look at America and think this is a nation that is responding in the most intelligent way possible to deal with violence, especially domestic violence," Reno said.
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Speakers supported Reno's controversial actions during her time as attorney general, including the Justice Department's siege of a religious sect's compound in Waco, Texas, and the removal of Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban found at sea after a failed attempt by his mother and 10 others to reach the U.S.
Reno's oft-criticized decision to send the Gonzalez , then 6, back to his father in Cuba actually reflected her love for children and family, said Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dees recalled how Gonzalez reacted at the mention of Reno's name in a recent phone conversation. Gonzalez "shouted on the phone, 'Vive la causa, Vive la causa,'" Dees said. "Long live justice."
Attorney General Eric Holder, Reno's deputy at the time of Gonzalez' return to Cuba, called his former boss "both tough and tender." In an interview last year on Good Morning America, Holder said he held a weeping Reno in his arms after she ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to remove Gonzalez from his great-uncle's Miami home.
"She never asked what was the easy or expedient thing, popular, or politically palpable thing to do," when making decisions, Holder said Friday.
The other event that tarnished Reno's tenure was the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian cult compound in 1993. After being surrounded by federal agents in the standoff, a fire broke out and scores of cult members died. Four federal agents also died.
Despite the intense criticism after Waco, Reno "stood up and took credit for possibly making a mistake," Dees said.
Reno, a five-term Florida state attorney, established the Miami Drug Court and was an outspoken advocate of crime prevention programs for children, a focus she carried with her to Washington.
Appointed U.S. attorney general by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Reno went on to serve eight years, and was the first woman to hold the post.
Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1995 and moved back to Miami in 2001. After she lost in the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2002, Reno largely disappeared from the public eye, appearing again at the Grammy Awards in 2007 to promote a compilation of historical U.S. music she helped produce.
Her ongoing battle with Parkinson's, a disease that Reno has spoken about publicly, causes her hands to shake and slows her speech, but in a conversation before the ceremony, she spoke candidly and effortlessly.
"It's wonderful to be back," she said. "It's been an extraordinary experience."
(Coffey is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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