To triumph and tragedy, Reno followed law

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    Former Attorney General Janet Reno dies

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Former Attorney General Janet Reno dies 03:09

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  • Laura Coates: Janet Reno was far from being a 'Washington insider'
  • Reno resolved not to confuse 'moral hubris' with her 'oath of office,' writes Coates

Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Follow her @thelauracoates. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)It's been more than 20 years since the late Janet Reno led the Department of Justice. Since becoming the first woman to serve as attorney general of the United States, our nation has seen its fair share of significant firsts, not the least of which is the Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton to be the first female president of the United States. While I was undeniably inspired by Ms. Reno's career, I also can't help but reflect on the ironically small distance our nation has traveled since she was in office.

Janet Reno's mantra appeared to be: The Department of Justice should be apolitical. Yet, on the eve of this historic presidential election, we are arguing about the veracity and viability of that mantra.
    Laura Coates
    Political outsiders have long chided the doctrine of separation of powers as a congressional punchline. They claim that the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, is a marionette whose strings are wound and manipulated by the political party in power. Autonomy is subordinate to partisan popularity and an overwhelming desire for career longevity.
    But that's one of the things that people should respect greatly about Janet Reno. Neither optics nor popularity trumped her adherence to the law.
    Sometimes her steadfast approach led to triumphs. Attorney General Reno enjoyed widespread popularity and experienced bipartisan support for her many legal accomplishments during her tenure. Her prosecutorial focus seamlessly shifted between industries, frustrating any attempt to pigeonhole her agenda.
    She prosecuted CIA mole Aldrich Ames, sued the goliath Microsoft for antitrust, advocated for federal protection for women seeking abortions and the clinics that performed them, and even filed suit against the tobacco industry to recoup public funding spent to treat smoking-related illnesses.
    But perhaps her most lasting accomplishment was laying the foundation for prosecuting terrorists, by initiating prosecutions of the bombings of World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building. Her decisions resonate today both in and outside of the legal community, as does her unwillingness to be a political pawn.
    And, sometimes, Reno's approach had much less favorable consequences. One thinks quickly of the young Cuban refugee Elián Gonzales being taken from his relatives' arms and returned to Cuba for a Fidel Castro photo op. Or of a compound in Waco, Texas, where 70 people, many of whom were children, were killed in a raid. No one can dispute that Waco was a tragedy, but at the same time, it was an example of Reno's propensity for acting in accordance with her interpretation of her duties, even when she couldn't predict or control the outcome.
    Either way, her approach seemed to rebuke any notion that she was a Washington insider. If job security was her goal, perhaps she would not have asked for the expansion of the Monica Lewinsky investigation into the sexual improprieties of the president who nominated her for the job.
    And if longevity were her goal, perhaps Attorney General Reno would not have shocked even the most cynical Washington observers by taking personal accountability for the decisions she made, rather than displacing blame along the bureaucratic chain.
    Yet, in spite of her controversial decisions, as a prosecutor I relate closely to many of the situations in which Janet Reno found herself.
    I didn't have the privilege of promoting my personal agenda or beliefs at the people's expense. There were times when what I believed was right was at odds with what the law required me to do, and my moral compass did not point in the same direction as department protocol. But my role was not legislative, it was prosecutorial. I had sworn to enforce the laws as written. My conscience may have voted at the polls, but my oath of office dictated my prosecutorial discretion.
    As a public servant, Janet Reno demonstrated that exercising one's prosecutorial discretion can't be performed robotically, but it must be performed without fear of personal ridicule or scrutiny. For me, her dutiful commitment was aspirational, as was her humility in acknowledging her regrets.
    As a federal prosecutor, I understood her frustration that came from being expected to make perfect decisions, without the benefit of perfect information. Attorney General Reno was both a role model for being decisive, and a cautionary tale for what happens when that decisiveness is apolitical.
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    Ironically, the criticism of FBI Director Comey's handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail server investigation is indeed a testament to Janet Reno's perceived independence.
    While Comey tried to buttress the integrity of the FBI by proving his own personal integrity and objectivity, Janet Reno upheld the integrity of the Justice Department by never feeling compelled to unilaterally verify her own. In her own words, "If somebody thinks I have an integrity problem, the honest thing to do is to tell me what they think it is and let me address it."
    The legacy of Janet Reno will be her steadfast resolve to try to keep the Justice Department independent, and her professional integrity not to confuse moral hubris with her oath of office.