The inspector in charge of the White Slave Division of the Immigration Service was a man named Andrew Tedesco. He knew many languages, was unkempt and unprepossessing in appearance. But to Tedesco belongs most of the credit for preventing importation of white slaves from foreign countries on a systematized basis. He faced the opposition of hotels, resorts, and politicians. To all in those trades this white-slave traffic was potentially profitable. A lot of them weren't worried about how widespread the traffic became, so long as it went on quietly and did not interfere with the comfort or disturb the feelings of their other patrons, who did not know it was going on under the same roof where they were spending their holidays or leading their more respectable lives. Tedesco cleaned up the red-light district along Sixth Avenue, which was part of the notorious Tenderloin.
When I was first assigned to Night Court, Tedesco said to me: "You can get experience in this job, or you can make a great deal of money. I don't think you'll take the money. But, remember, the test is if you hesitate. Unless you say 'No!' right off, the first time an offer comes your way, you're gone."
I always remembered that bit of advice throughout my career. It is the first, instinctive reaction to dishonesty or indecency that always counts, and I have repeated Tedesco's advice to many men entering public service where they are subject to temptation.
I profited greatly by my studies at New York University Law School. I had plenty of incentive to study law rather than merely to cram for a bar examination as many of my classmates were doing. It seemed to me then, as it has ever since, that too many lawyers were being turned out like so many sausages every year. It was obvious that many of the young men in our classes had neither the mental equipment nor the educational background needed to make good lawyers. Yet there they were, being turned out and going into active practice. After my three years of study at NYU, I had no trouble passing the bar examination and was satisfied that I had learned how to use "the tools of the trade."
I started in the law business on the first day I was admitted to the bar in October, 1910. I had two weeks' salary from my job at Ellis Island, amounting to a total capital of $65. I rented office space at $15 a month in the law offices of McIlheny and Bennett. I managed to get some letterheads and some secondhand furniture. The firm had a good law library, and I had a good legal education. I was hopeful, but I had no particular passion for the practice of the law. My practice, however, was most useful and gave me an opportunity to learn a great deal about conditions in New York courts and New York politics in relation to the courts, which came in handy later when I held office in New York City.
The more I got to know about lawyers and their ethics, the less respect I had for them. I needed business about as badly as any young lawyer in the game, but I look back now and am happy in the knowledge that I never took a case that I did not believe in.
I never accepted a retaining fee unless I was convinced of the rights of my client. I found that nine persons out of ten who consult lawyers have either no need for a lawyer or no case. I refused to take cases when I thought the client had no case or did not need a lawyer but could settle his differences himself. I lost many, many clients who became fine friends of mine in later years. They would seldom believe me when I advised them that they had no case, and would run to other lawyers, who would sometimes exaggerate the importance of their cases, talk a lot of legal gibberish to impress them, and take a fee which the client, in time, would have to charge off to experience. It would have been easy to build up a large practice if I had done the same as they, but I liked it better the other way.
Later, when I went to Congress, I saw how easy it was to exploit public office to get law business. But I thought there was only one thing to do and that was to devote my time to my Congressional duties. Even lawyers tried to retain me to appear in government cases or before government departments. Members of Congress are forbidden by law to engage in such practice. However, strangely enough, a great deal of it was going on during the seven terms I served in the House of Representatives.
Soon after I began to practice law, I got some familiarity with the workings of our courts in New York City. One of the first things that one noted was that knowing the judge did not injure any lawyer. I remember still my first case in the Municipal Court. I prepared it carefully, and the facts were properly presented. The judge decided it against me. I could not figure out why. The judge called me up to the bench. He knew I was a young lawyer recently admitted to the bar. He congratulated me on my presentation of the case. "Well, if I did so well, why didn't you decide in my favor?" I asked. "Oh, young man, I'll give you a break some other day," he said. What a hell of a way to dispense justice! I thought. This same judge is now on the bench of the New York Supreme Court.
I did not go in for criminal case, and I don’t suppose I ever had more than ten or twelve such cases to try. I do not remember ever having taken a fee for a criminal case. Most of those I tried were either assigned to me by the court or cases I accepted because friends or settlement house workers solicited my interest when the families involved hand no money to retain a lawyer.
The personality of the judge affected some of the interesting civil cases I tried. Because of the personal traits of judges one could never be sure that a case would be decided on its merits. I remember one case of breach of warranty in which there was a perfectly good defense because the goods sold and delivered by a wholesale grocery firm were defective, and the vendor had refused to accept return of the merchandise, which was a total loss to the purchaser.
At the end of the trial, however, the judge said to the jury: “Now, gentlemen, if you want to retire, you may, but I don’t think it is necessary. There is a very clear case of goods sold and delivered and not paid for.” But the jury did want to retire. The judge expressed surprise. It was late in the afternoon. Two or three times I noticed the court attendant come up and talk to the judge. The lawyer for the plaintiff was a former partner of this judge. Finally, the jury brought in a verdict for the plaintiff. I learned a few years later from one of the jurymen, whom I happened to meet, that the judge had sent word to the jury to hurry up with the decision and come in with a verdict for the plaintiff.
In another cue I was trying, for a woman who was injured through the gross, negligence of a motorman on a Brooklyn trolley car, the judge was pretty rough to our side all the way through. The jury went out. I was in the hallway. The judge, on his way from the courtroom to his chambers, accosted the lawyer for the trolley line. "Was it all right, Joe?" he asked. Perhaps he didn't see me, but he ignored me if he did, and did not care whether I heard him or not. Then he added to his friend the traction lawyer: "Well, Joe, don't worry. If they bring in a verdict against you, I will set it aside."
Later I studied the system by which judges were selected for nomination and found that most of them were hand-picked by politicians. The bar association would go through the motions of endorsing or refusing to endorse candidates. I learned that any judge who had a chance of election was pretty sure to get the endorsement of the bar associations.