Janet Reno, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general and the first female to serve in that capacity, spoke about preserving democracy in America to some 150 attendees at a Yale Law Journal symposium.
The two-day symposium on modern constitutional jurisprudence, titled “On Democratic Ground: New Perspectives on John Hart Ely,” was dedicated to the memory of Ely, who died a year ago after authoring several influential books on judicial review and constitutional law. Reno, the symposium’s keynote speaker, said the best way to memorialize Ely, a friend of hers, is to “renew and rededicate ourselves to making democracy work.”
“We need to enforce those rights for minorities that the majority has seen fit to grant themselves,” she said.
Reno said issues such as poor public education, government unaccountability, unequal access to lawyers and the legal system’s inability to maximize its use of science are impediments to a fully functional American democracy.
Arguing that effectively revamping public education systems is “dealing in affirmative action for America’s youth from the get-go,” Reno pointed to America’s dependence on other nations for skilled labor and the potential effects of childhood intervention on crime as evidence that education ought to be a higher priority in the United States.
“We are the richest, greatest nation in the world, and we have not done justice to our children,” Reno said.
Appropriately for the woman who, as former President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, famously “didn’t do spin,” Reno also discussed government transparency.
“So much of what we classify need not be classified,” she said. “People ought to, except in the most extreme of circumstances, know exactly what the government is doing.”
In a recommendation that she said “could be considered heresy at Yale Law School,” Reno suggested access to the legal system could be bettered not only by increasing compensation and decreasing workload for public defenders but also by opening up the legal profession.
“Electricians don’t go to college, and, given what I know about electricity, I’d rather have my electrician have gone on to an institute of higher education than my lawyer,” she said.
Reno talked about improving the courts’ “truth-finding capacity” by capitalizing on new technology and monitoring labs.
“Unless lawyers can take responsibility for learning what science can tell us, history and science will leave us behind,” she said.
Many of the problems with democracy in the United States today “cry out for a lawyer’s commitment,” she said.
“Lawyers can be both the sword that corrects the wrong and the shield against unjust prosecution,” Reno said.
Reno is well-known for her supervision of such controversial cases as the Elian Gonzalez deportation, the Whitewater investigation and the siege of Waco, Texas. The former attorney general for Dade County, Fla., Reno, who has an undergraduate chemistry degree from Cornell and a law degree from Harvard, established Miami’s drug court and reformed its juvenile justice system.
One of the most recognizable female figures in the legal field — which Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh said is due in part to Saturday Night Live skits in which Reno was played by Will Ferrell — Reno spoke about her experiences entering a male-dominated profession. She recalled dining with the dean of the Harvard Law School, who told her he did not mind admitting her but that he didn’t know “what on earth” Reno would do with a law degree.
Reno’s personal story had particular resonance for some of the female law students in the audience.
“It was inspiring to see how much she accomplished given the time in which she started entering this profession,” Jessica Anderson LAW ’06 said.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”16869″ ]