The bleak, dreary years of the Great Depression brought an energetic, ambitious, and unconventional mayor to the city of New York. Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882-1947) swept into office, following successive mayors who were crippled by corruption and incompetence. He lost no time in tackling his agenda of restoring economic stability to the city, combatting corruption, and restoring the city’s infrastructure.
Despite having his hands full with all of these responsibilities, the mayor still found time to do something few of his predecessors ever did. New York’s laws at the time permitted the mayor to sit in any of the city courts as a magistrate. LaGuardia was known to make good use of his education from New York University School of Law and would periodically show up in the city’s courtrooms and take his turn at the bench.
Although most of the documented cases of the mayor serving as a judge involved cases of some notoriety, there was one in particular that has become famous despite the anonymity of the defendant. It happened in January 1935 when the mayor took the bench in one of the wards that had been hit hardest by the Great Depression.
A case was called, and the mayor looked up to see an elderly woman approach the bench. Her face was filled with shame as the charge against her was read: theft of a loaf of bread.
LaGuardia asked her if the charge against her was true. The old woman was unable to look the mayor in the eyes and acknowledged that she had, in fact, committed the crime of which she was accused.
LaGuardia asked her what prompted her to break the law in this way. The old woman answered that she did it for her family. She explained that her son-in-law had abandoned his wife and two young children and how none of them had eaten anything in several days.
As the woman spoke, LaGuardia looked toward the shop owner who had brought the charges against her. He showed no indication of forgiving the transgression. “This is a low-security area, sir,” he said. “She must be punished to set an example for others.”
After considering the evidence, LaGuardia sighed and said, “I have to work in accordance with justice and obey the law. You have two options: pay $ 10 or serve 10 days. “
Even as he spoke, he reached into his pocket and withdrew $10. He held it for everyone in the courtroom to see and said, “This is $10 that I will now remit.” He put the money in his hat and handed it to the bailiff. The mayor continued, “In addition, I charge each person in the court 50 cents, which is the penalty for our indifference for living in a city where a woman has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat.” He directed the bailiff to pass the hat around and collect the fines and give them to the defendant.
Much to the astonishment of the defendant, the bailiff handed her $47.50. With $10, she paid her fine. The remainder, paid by other defendants, police officers, and even the man from whom she had stolen the bread, was hers and was received amidst the applause of those who were in attendance.