A New Jersey judge-cum-filmmaker has chosen to step down from the bench rather than abide by a dictum from state judicial authorities that he not publicize his satirical movie painting President Obama as a modern-day Faust.
Kenneth Del Vecchio quit his North Arlington municipal court judgeship on May 3, the day the New Jersey Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Affairs directed that he should not be interviewed or participate in any press or publicity that may accompany the film, "O.B.A.M. Nude," which was to be released the next day.
It was a letdown for Del Vecchio, who has been making films almost as long as he's been a lawyer. Since 1999, he has produced 13 movies, many of them with courtroom or law-based scenarios. A few have been picked up by such well-known distributors as Universal's Vivendi Entertainment, he says. He is also a founder and director of the Hoboken Film Festival.
When he was appointed to the North Arlington judgeship last January, Del Vecchio didn't anticipate his filmmaking or its related publicity would pose a conflict, he says. After all, U.S. Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had written books and freely promoted them.
But in late April, Del Vecchio attended a seminar on extrajudicial activities run by former Acting Administrative Director of the Courts Philip Carchman. He asked for advice, and Carchman told him he should inquire with the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Affairs.
Del Vecchio did so, and enclosed a DVD of "O.B.A.M. Nude." The film is about a cocaine-snorting college student who makes a deal to deliver millions of souls to Satan. The main character, played by Del Vecchio, goes on to attend Harvard Law School, work as a community organizer and win the White House. The title's initials stand for "Occidental Births a Monster," a reference to the college Obama attended for a short time.
The committee's secretary, Gurpreet Singh, wrote in reply: "The Committee is of the view that, as a sitting municipal court judge, your promotion of your films, is improper or could create an appearance of impropriety. In addition, the Committee recommends that the Web sites for your films and your film production company should not make any reference to your judicial position."
The committee did not cite any canons or court rules in its response, which also covered two other firms Del Vecchio is releasing in June: "Fake," a thriller about forged artworks, and "An Affirmative Act," a courtroom drama about two lesbians, one of whom masquerades as a man so they can marry.
Though the committee made clear its ruling is only advisory, Del Vecchio says has no plans to appeal. Still, he takes exception.
"The idea that in New Jersey, judges should have no public voice whatsoever about their opinions creates a legal fiction. It basically amounts to a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he says. "We all have opinions, but we don't want the public to know what they are. As a defense attorney or a litigant, I want to know what a judge thinks -- it allows you to prepare for your case."
North Arlington solicitor Randy Pearce, with whom Del Vecchio practiced law until going on the bench, takes the view that "if it was not such a politically charged movie, there probably would have been a different advisory opinion."
Del Vecchio say the North Arlington Council was well aware of his film activities when he was appointed judge. He notes that a council member, Steve Tanelli, wanted him to sign an agreement barring the use of his judicial experiences in his films. That proved unnecessary, since judicial ethics rules already prohibit such use.
He says it is disappointing to end his judicial career, adding that he "absolutely loved and adored being a judge. I was very polite and thoughtful. I felt I was the picture of fundamental fairness."
Until a replacement is named, George Savino, who sits in several other area municipal courts, will fill in for Del Vecchio, says Pearce.
North Arlington Mayor Peter Massa did not respond to a telephone message left at town hall.
Admitted to the bar in 1994, Del Vecchio, now a Hawthorne solo, has been a criminal defense attorney and municipal prosecutor. He is the author of "2010 New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice: A Practical Guide" published by the New Jersey Law Journal.