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Special Event

Reno: Election a Matter of State Law

Aired November 9, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you right live to Washington, D.C., where Attorney General Janet Reno is holding her weekly media briefing. Let's listen.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

QUESTION: The other half of the country is going to think that you're avoiding a very serious situation to escape some kind of controversy. Which are you going to do?

JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm going to try to do everything I can to move fairly, carefully, thoughtfully, and look to see whether there is any basis for federal action, before I jump in, and recognize that the conduct of an election is basically a matter of state law.

We're not here to generate controversy. We're here to do what's right and to make sure that the voice of the American people that has spoken is heard fairly. That is generally a matter of state law.

QUESTION: Given that that is a matter of state law, what conceivable -- well, let me put it this way. Isn't it fair to conclude there is no conceivable federal interest here? How could there be, I guess is what I'm asking?

RENO: We would have to look at each instance to see whether there was any basis for concluding that there was a federal violation, and do it fairly, do it carefully and do it with dispatch.

QUESTION: Have you yet heard of any circumstance that gives you reason to believe there is a federal interest?

RENO: We are reviewing each. And at this point, I think it would -- we received a letter, for example, yesterday from the NAACP. We will review that.

But I want to be very careful that we don't do anything that politicizes what is a very important moment in American history, when we should all be working together to see that the voice of the American people has properly been heard.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, what issue did the NAACP raise in its letter? Is that the confusion on the ballot or some other civil rights issue? RENO: I would just let them speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, can you give us a sense of how many complaints you've gotten?

RENO: We've received a lot of telephone calls and people calling on us.

QUESTION: One of the letters that was sent was from law professors in New York, who said that the layout of the ballot itself represented a potential discrimination, a civil rights violation, and it could have been aimed even at minorities. Do you have any comment on whether the problem of the ballot layout is a state issue or whether that could conceivably become a federal issue?

RENO: We would look at each one. But, again, it is -- in the system we have, state law governs the conduct of an investigation -- I mean, of an election, governs the form of the ballot.

And I think it is important that we adhere to principles of federalism, recognize that it is primarily a state issue, and, again, do everything we can to play an appropriate role that doesn't politicize the matter but contributes in a thoughtful way to the resolution of it.

QUESTION: Are any Civil Rights Division attorneys down there now?

RENO: Not that I know of.

QUESTION: In the matter of West Palm Beach, here's a situation, allegedly, that could change the outcome of the election. Now, you once played the role of attorney general. Is it possible -- of attorney general in Florida...

RENO: No, I did not.

QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry, you did not. Oh, you were judge.

RENO: No, I was not a judge.

QUESTION: All right, maybe you could give me your...

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Well, you are from Florida.

(LAUGHTER)

RENO: I am from Florida.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: You voted in Florida. QUESTION: Is it possible to have a re-election, a new election, for a small segment when there may been some ballot irregularities? Is there any precedent for that in Florida? That's basically my question.

RENO: I would refer you to the attorney general of Florida.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have you been in touch with any Florida officials or have any Florida officials called you, seeking any advice from the federal level?

RENO: No.

QUESTION: You say we're looking at these; who in the department is looking at these complaints?

RENO: We take each one and look at it and make an appropriate determination as to whether there would be civil rights implications or otherwise.

QUESTION: Up until now, has anything that you've seen give you -- given you any reason to trigger any sort of inquiry at all?

RENO: I just want to make sure that we look at each one and not comment prematurely.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have you discussed this at all with the White House yet, or have any your aides?

RENO: I have not discussed it with the White House.

QUESTION: And have your aides?

RENO: I don't know whether anybody has discussed any issue with the White House.

QUESTION: You stress that you don't want to politicize this issue. As an appointee of the Clinton-Gore administration, how do you go about actually doing that? Will you personally distance yourself from any decisions that are made? Or how will that work?

RENO: One of the issues that is important to recognize is that the Justice Department and the attorney general have an obligation to pursue matters carefully and thoughtfully and to not let issues be politicized.

I'm going to try my level-best to make sure that that doesn't happen, that we recognize that it is a matter basically of state law, and that we come together in what has to be one of the important moments of this nation's history, not to engage in recrimination, but to really address this issue thoughtfully and to move ahead and to make sure that the processes are carefully done to ensure that the president-elect is identified early on in a manner that will have the confidence of the whole nation.

QUESTION: How can you not politicize a process that is inherently political? How can you remove politics from the process of counting votes and making sure votes are fair?

RENO: Well, as you have realized on a number of occasions, I get damned if I do and damned if I don't. And the important thing is to try to make sure that we recognize that it is a matter of state law in most cases, that each state conducts its elections according to state law, and that we do not interfere unless there is a basis for federal jurisdiction.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have you received inquiries from the Gore campaign or from the Bush campaign about the election in Florida?

RENO: I have not. I don't know whether anybody in the department has heard specifically from them.

QUESTION: Have you heard from anyone other than the NAACP?

RENO: We've received lots of calls and other inquiries.

QUESTION: But in terms of letters to you personally?

RENO: That's the only letter that I have seen.

QUESTION: Do you know whether any members of the Florida congressional delegation have been in contact with the department?

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, in terms of potential federal jurisdiction, is it limited basically to the Voting Rights Act?

RENO: I would not comment because I think it is important that we consider the issues that are raised, not judge them prematurely, recognize again that it is primarily a matter of state law, and that we take appropriate action based on specific facts.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the elderly would fall under a specifically targeted group, a discriminated group, under the Voting Rights Act?

RENO: I would not speculate. I think it is, again, important that we look at what has happened and see whether there is a basis for federal jurisdiction before we ever proceed.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, with all due respect, the right to vote is a federally protected right. If a number of people say that they were denied the right to vote fairly, why isn't that a federal interest?

RENO: It may well be a federal interest. The issue is, what are the remedies available and how should it be addressed, and whether it was intentional or whether it was not. There are just a variety of issues that must be considered before one passes judgment.

QUESTION: If not intentional, then would there be any need for federal involvement or remedy?

RENO: Again, we look at each instance to see whether there's a basis for federal jurisdiction.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you said earlier the department had gotten lots of phone calls. Do you have any idea how many? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?

RENO: No, I don't.

QUESTION: You sent 300 observers to various polling locations around the country because of potential concern in some pockets that there could be voting irregularities or bias against certain minority groups. Have you heard back from the people who coordinated those observers? And where there any instances of any irregularities or civil rights violations anywhere in the country, to your knowledge?

RENO: I have not heard of any specific report from any of those observers. I will ask Myron to give you any information that he may have that is appropriate.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, how closely did you follow Tuesday night's events? And what was your reaction when it became clear that this was too close to call?

RENO: The first time I stayed up all night was in 1948.

(LAUGHTER)

I was 10-years-old. It was election night. At 62, I didn't stay up all night, but I followed it through most of the evening.

Watching people -- watching reactions of people, and even in these days that follow, what impresses me so much is how strong democracy is in this country.

Many other nations, not knowing who their president might be, I think might be in a more difficult situation. But this nation has a strength, it has the ability to come together to work through issues. And, as the night unfolded, and then as we've addressed what next, I'm so impressed, again, with how strong democracy is, but how we must never take it for granted.

QUESTION: From a legal standpoint, is it possible to bring those people in, those 19,000 people who they believe mistakenly voted for two people, is it legal to bring them back in and say: Indicate who you really want to vote for?

RENO: That would have to be addressed through state law, and if there were other situations -- but I don't do what-ifs. We just have to look at each situation.

QUESTION: Has the Community Relations Service been contacted by anyone, to your knowledge, about this? And is there any plausible role they could play in discussing the issues with people there or keeping the lid on emotions about this?

RENO: I think the CRS, the Community Relation Service, has done wonderful work, and I think it's important that everybody, again, come together and address this carefully and thoughtfully, each branch of government playing its appropriate role.

QUESTION: At what time did you stay up to, if I can ask? Who was winning in Florida when you signed off?

RENO: Bush was winning Florida when I went to bed, but he hadn't been declared a victor yet. When I woke up at 5, I forget what the situation was by that point.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you say you haven't been contacted by the Bush or Gore camps, but this is an opportunity to publicly reassure Governor Bush and Vice President Al Gore of the impartiality of the Justice Department in this process. Do you have some public message that you want to give to them?

RENO: Just what I told you before, I'm going to do my level-best to make sure that politics is not a part of this; that we do this fairly, carefully, thoughtfully; that we don't interject ourselves when it's not right; and that the goal of the everybody concerned should be what both men have said.

I think their statements were thoughtful and careful, and I think everybody recognizes that it is an important, vital time in this nation's history, and we should do it right.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, is there anybody in the Justice Department monitoring this recount at all? Is an attorney with the Justice Department there?

RENO: No. In terms of monitoring it there day-to-day, it would be, I think, impossible to have somebody on the scene throughout. And again, it's a matter or state law and a matter -- if there was any basis for action, we would be prepared to take it.

QUESTION: Is Florida covered under the Voting Rights Act?

RENO: Portions of it are.

QUESTION: Receipt of some criticism is the role of television in predicting the races, obviously, and also the Electoral College itself. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on either one of those issues?

RENO: Well, you know my view on television.

QUESTION: What is it?

RENO: My mother wouldn't let us have a television set because she said it contributed to mind rot.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: You listened to the '48 elections on the radio?

RENO: Yes, on the Stromberg-Carlson (ph) radio. And my father kept telling me to turn it down. I got even with him.

(LAUGHTER)

I think polls and projections take something away from the American people.

And with respect to the Electoral College, I asked my mother, because everybody thought they didn't know how elections worked, and she explained to me the Electoral College and I said, "You mean, a man can get more of the votes of the people but lose?" And that puzzled me as a child. And then I debated in high school and one of our debate topics was the direct election of president and I debated both sides and I won both sides.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Are you convinced that the Electoral College system is the correct means? And, I guess I should ask, if Bush has the votes in Florida when all is said and done, he would then have the electoral votes and would that qualify him to be president, if he wins the popular vote and wins the electoral votes in Florida?

RENO: I think I should stay out of a discussion of that. But I think the Electoral College is part of the framework of our process, and I think we should all work together to make sure that the law is adhered to.

QUESTION: So the Electoral College is the means by which we select a president? No doubt in your mind about that?

RENO: I don't think I should be drawn into your political consideration.

QUESTION: But if there is any doubt, that's a big story.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Another subject. The assistant U.S. attorney -- or former assistant U.S. attorney -- who basically started all the uproar about Waco a year ago, just over a year ago, has now indicted by your special counsel. Do you think this sends a harsh signal about what happens to whistle-blowers?

RENO: One of the things that I've tried to do, both with independent counsel and special counsel, is when I appoint them or seek the appointment, to not comment, to ensure that they are able to operate independently.

KAGAN: We've been listening to Attorney General Janet Reno as she conducts her weekly media address, when she talks to reporters. This is part of her regular week. Of course the topic this week the election on Tuesday and the current recount going on in the state of Florida. The attorney general saying for now she is reviewing the matter, but at this point she believes probably the election is a matter of state law. She did say she has received a number of letters, including one from the NAACP. This might be a civil rights issue because a number of minority complaints coming from people who believe they filed ballots that were not counted and even discarded. And in terms of it being state law, the attorney general, of course, would be very familiar with state law in Florida since, in an earlier life, she was the state's attorney for Dade County in South Florida where much of this attention is taking place.

Let's bring in my partner, Bill Hemmer.

Bill, I thought it was interesting when she shared the personal note, how she had to -- Bill, are you with us?

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I sure am, Daryn. Go ahead. We're all right.

KAGAN: I don't know if you were able to hear the attorney general, but she was talking about how in high school she had to debate the topic of direct election of a president. She debated both sides and she said she won both sides. So easy to see that...

HEMMER: As any good attorney would tell you, they win their arguments.

KAGAN: No matter what they're arguing.

HEMMER: Daryn, I did hear her comments, and one thing that struck me is just the absolute minutia that can be involved in this election process. And what that minutia says, although it may appear to be small and minor, these small details may loom very large in deciding these incredible stakes here, and that's the race for the White House.

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