Janet Reno speaks at PSU

Former Attorney General Janet Reno spoke to progressive lawyers at Portland State yesterday, thanking them for their work on the Death With Dignity Act and encouraging them to advance progressive legal thought.


Reno spoke at the kickoff of the new Portland lawyer chapter of the American Constitution Society, a national association of progressive legal and policy experts. The group, which Reno helped start after the 2000 election, has 138 student chapters and 19 lawyer chapters.


“I want to salute the people here who have worked on assisted suicide. You’ve made Oregon a model for lawyer participation,” Reno said. “I just urge you to keep on reminding us how real democracy can be.”


The first woman attorney general said she let herself “get cussed at and fussed at and generally figuratively beaten about the ears” during her term because she believes in the power of the law to provide justice. “And besides,” she added, slipping into the same self-deprecation that put her in the comedy spotlight, “how else are you going to get on Saturday Night Live?”


Reno said she has remained passionate about justice issues since exiting the attorney general post in 2001.


Now that she is not speaking as a representative for the Clinton administration, “I feel free to talk about issues as my issues,” Reno said. Throughout the evening, she emphasized the importance of the Innocence Project, which has overturned 163 convictions with DNA tests. She asked lawyers to donate time working pro bono with Innocence Project cases.


“Can we afford to let one more death penalty be carried out in this country when we are still so uncertain of our ability to identify people?” Reno said, reminding the audience of the fallibility of witness memory.


Reno’s appearance coincides with the recent arguments over Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act in the Supreme Court. U.S. attorneys general under the Bush administration have challenged the unique law, saying it violates federal drug law. Reno’s original assessment, which determined the 1994 law was protected, has made her a hero to some supporters of the Death With Dignity Act.


Claire Simons, director of media relations for the national group Compassion and Choices, attended the kickoff to see Reno. When talking about the current Supreme Court case, “I keep telling everyone, read the Reno statement, just read the Reno statement,” Simons said.


The ACS makes no bones about its leftist leanings. Supporters say the four-year-old group is a reaction to conservative legal groups’ work.


“Conservative theories dominate not just political discussion but public discussion,” said Lisa Brown, ACS executive director said. “It’s time to push back.”


“Just as the Federalist Society has led the charge of conservative legal thinking – for the last 20 years, the liberals have finally started a countercharge,” ACS steering committee member Cody Hoesly wrote on the liberal blog BlueOregon.com.


All members of the Portland chapter work as volunteers, Hoesly said.


Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers praised Reno’s “palpable integrity” and openness, saying that when he served under Reno, all state attorneys general were given Reno’s home number.


Third-year law student Lucas Meyer hoped the new lawyer chapter would help revive his ACS student chapter at Lewis and Clark. For now, he said, there is no liberal group to represent constitutional law students. Another student chapter exists at the University of Oregon.


The new ACS chapter plans to sponsor local forums. For more information, visit www.acslaw.org.