President Clinton on Thursday named Miami prosecutor Janet Reno as his nominee for attorney general, putting an end, the White House hopes, to a frustrating and embarrassing saga for the new Administration.
A high-profile prosecutor for 15 years who has handily won reelection four times, the 54-year-old Reno would bring a strong background in criminal law and a reputation for integrity and political savvy to the Justice Department.
As state attorney for Dade County, which includes Miami and the surrounding area, Reno has handled several controversial criminal cases, including two politically sensitive police brutality prosecutions in one of the nation's most racially volatile cities. She has presided over a staff of 230 lawyers prosecuting 40,000 felonies a year.
In a Rose Garden press conference with Clinton, the 6-foot-2 Reno deftly handled a series of questions about her plans for the department and her stands on controversial issues.
On the question that sank Clinton's first nominee, Zoe Baird, and then short-circuited the President's move toward picking Judge Kimba M. Wood last week, Reno was blunt: "I've never hired an illegal alien, and I think I've paid all my Social Security taxes," she said with a smile. Reno is single and has no children.
Reno also offered straightforward answers on two of the most controversial topics the Justice Department faces.
"I'm pro-choice," she said when asked her position on abortion.
Asked about the death penalty, Reno said: "I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, as I've told the President, but I've probably asked for it as much as any prosecutor in the country and have secured it.
"When the evidence and the law justify the death penalty, I will ask for it, as I have consistently," she said. Under her direction, the Dade County prosecutor's office has won 80 capital punishment convictions.
Clinton, for his part, praised Reno as "a front-line crime-fighter and a caring public servant" and said he "wanted to bring someone to the Justice Department who had dealt with a wide range of real-world problems."
The President conceded that his selection of Reno had been "somewhat but not entirely" influenced by his desire to find a woman for the job, but he insisted that the post "was not set aside" for female candidates.
Reno's political skills as much as her gender favored her selection, Clinton said. "We carried Dade County in the presidential election by 4 percentage points," Clinton quipped to reporters. "The last time Janet Reno had an opponent, she carried it by 40 percentage points."
Clinton said he had "seriously considered at least four men for this job." White House personnel director Bruce Lindsey said the President had talked with eight candidates in all--either in person or on the telephone--since Wood's withdrawal last week.
Reno traveled to Washington on Tuesday and met with Clinton for about 90 minutes that night. She met with private lawyers conducting background checks for the White House throughout the day Wednesday. White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said the final background checks were completed Thursday morning and that Clinton called to offer Reno the job that afternoon.
White House aides expressed confidence that this time they had a nominee who could be confirmed without difficulty.
"Everyone who has met with her in the last few days has been extremely impressed," Lindsey said.
"Now maybe we can get a little more rest," said White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty.
Clinton discounted the political damage that the troubled search has inflicted on him, saying: "Oh, I don't think there's much," in response to a reporter's question.
But aides were clearly elated to have the issue out of the way. "Now we can really clear the focus for the economy," said one White House official.
Actually, filling the final hole in Clinton's Cabinet will take some time. The Senate Judiciary Committee may begin hearings on Reno's nomination at the end of this month, Senate sources said, but a final vote is not expected until well into March.
In the meantime, the Justice Department faces some pressing problems, particularly the fate of FBI Director William S. Sessions, who has been found to have violated ethics rules by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
Asked about Sessions, Clinton indicated that he would wait until after Reno's confirmation before making any decisions. "I think the appropriate thing is to wait until . . . (we) give the attorney general-designate a chance to review that before we say anything about it," he said.
Administration officials have made it clear that Clinton would like to see Sessions go but have been hoping the FBI director would leave of his own accord.
Sessions, however, gave further indications Thursday that he has no intention of leaving on his own. He announced that Coretta Scott King, widow of the assassinated civil rights leader and president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, would speak next Tuesday to "a large gathering of employees at FBI headquarters."
Sessions and some of his supporters have suggested that criticisms of him have stemmed not from his own actions but from Justice Department opposition to his affirmative-action efforts.
He appears to be using his friendship with Mrs. King as a shield in his efforts to keep his job. An FBI spokesman insisted, however, that Mrs. King's appearance was arranged "months ago," and had nothing to do with "recent events."
In addition to the Sessions problem, the new attorney general will have to move quickly to fill the department's top ranks, which have been staffed in large part by holdovers from the George Bush Administration. So far, for example, the department's solicitor general, who represents the government before the Supreme Court, has continued to take Bush Administration positions in cases pending before the justices.
Many of those cases involve issues with which Reno has little direct familiarity. Although the attorney general's main public profile is as the nation's top law enforcement officer, Clinton's earlier selection process had focused on the other aspects of the job--looking for a candidate with experience in complex civil and federal constitutional law questions.
Indeed, Clinton said he had considered Reno at the beginning of his search last year but had dropped the idea because she "had always been a state prosecutor and not a federal U.S. attorney or not a higher Justice Department official."
But Clinton expressed confidence that Reno had "more than enough familiarity with the federal system to do the job." She expressed a similar sentiment. "It's going to be very difficult for any one person to be skilled and to be experienced in every area that the attorney general must cover," she said. "I think I can do the job."
Reno's nomination drew quick praise from women's organizations, who had feared that after two false starts with female nominees Clinton would turn to a man for the job.
"Do you want to talk to a happy women's rights advocate?" asked Marcia Greenberger, president of the National Women's Law Center, when she called a reporter to offer comment. "It was a great appointment," she said.
The choice also appeared to garner a positive initial reaction in the Senate, where Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a Harvard Law School classmate of Reno's, has actively backed her nomination. Graham's Republican colleague, Connie Mack, also praised Reno and said he plans to support her.
And Clinton, himself, gave Reno the final vote of confidence. Asked what he would do over again if he could start the transition anew, Clinton quipped: "I would have called Janet Reno on November the fifth."
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.
Profile: Janet Reno
Personal: Single. No children. Intensely private, she is known as a workaholic who keeps a sleeping bag in her office.
Education: Chemistry degree from Cornell University; law degree from Harvard University.
Career: Reno has steadfastly avoided the spotlight during her 15-year career as Dade County prosecutor. Her record as a prosecutor is mixed. One of the most notable cases she brought was the Miami River Cops case, in which several Miami police officers were convicted of ripping off drug smugglers. One of Miami's worst race riots occurred in 1980 after her office failed to win the conviction of four police officers charged in the beating death of a black insurance agent.