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Judge-cum-Comedian's Appeal Tests N.J. Court System's Sense of HumorNew Jersey Judge Vincenzo Sicari -- alias comic "Vince August" -- is in an ethics pickle. Like many stand-up comics, his material is a mix of ranting and self-deprecating jokes about his personal life, racial stereotypes and society, but the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities said he can't decide cases by day and do shtick by night. His term on the bench ends Dec. 31, but Sicari isn't taking the ultimatum lying down. He's asked the state Supreme Court for review, and the justices have agreed to hear the case.
New Jersey Law Journal2010-10-15 12:00:00 AM
A judge walks into a bar and launches into a stand-up routine. The bartender asks, "Is this a joke?" The judge says, "Let me check with the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities."
That's not exactly how South Hackensack, N.J., Judge Vincenzo Sicari -- alias comic "Vince August" -- got into an ethics pickle. But he did make the inquiry, and the outcome wasn't so funny: The panel that regulates New Jersey municipal judges' moonlighting said he can't decide cases by day and do shtick by night.
Sicari, though his term on the bench ends Dec. 31, isn't taking the ultimatum lying down. He's asked the state Supreme Court for review, and the justices on Oct. 8 agreed to hear the case, In the Matter of Opinion No. 12-08 of the Supreme Court Committee on Extrajudicial Activities, A-23-10.
Sicari, 41, a New York Law School graduate admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1996, began his comedy career the next year at venues in and around New York City, starting with Caroline's on Broadway. He's also done shows in other parts of the country as well as Canada and has performed in commercials, television shows like "As the World Turns" and films like "The Heckler," a 2007 documentary about an actor who takes on hecklers after starring in a film that was panned.
Like many stand-up comics, Sicari's material is a mix of ranting and self-deprecating jokes about his personal life, racial stereotypes, religion and society in general. His 2005 video, "Vinsanity," records a one-man performance in which Vince August is sent to a psychiatrist who tries to help him move away from his angry rants and to make him more mainstream.
Sicari declined the New Jersey Law Journal's request for an interview, but in a November 2008 interview on New Tang Dynasty Television, he said he does jokes that "many people would consider off-color or inappropriate." In a featured clip of a performance, he wonders aloud whether a disabled person is able to suffer a serious injury in a car accident, being already disabled. In another, he jokes that hunting is "not a sport" because the "other side doesn't know you're playing."
Throughout his performance career, Sicari kept his day job. He started as a prosecutor, then moved to Lucianna & Lucianna in Hackensack and in 2000 went solo, first in Ridgewood and then in Paramus, doing primarily criminal defense work.
In 2007, The Record of Hackensack ran a feature article about Sicari and his dual career. That same year, South Hackensack Mayor Rosina Romano appointed Sicari to the municipal court. Sicari disclosed his comedy career at that point.
In January 2008, he had become a judge, and when The Record wanted to do a follow-up article, Sicari sought guidance from the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities and refused to be interviewed by the paper pending its advice.
The committee seemed less than amused by Sicari's material. In a May 13, 2008, opinion letter, it told Sicari it had decided -- via a telephone poll of its 11 members -- that he could not be interviewed nor could continue to perform as a comedian.
He wrote back on June 2, 2008, informing the committee that he would not do the newspaper interview, but he asked if he could continue his career as a standup comedian.
After almost two years without a response, the committee wrote back on May 6, 2010, informing him that it had "ratified" its decision that Sicari may no longer do comedy.
The committee found that although Sicari used a different stage name, there was enough information on the Internet to make the link, including the 2007 article in The Record and other online database information, some showing his photograph.
Thus, readers and audience members could recognize him as a local municipal judge, and some of his material could suggest bias, predisposition and lack of impartiality, which could negatively impinge on the perceptions of litigants, witnesses and the public at large, the committee said.
In addition, performing as an entertainer would advance the private interests of others, such as night clubs and media companies, and of the judge himself, which the panel said was a violation of Canon 2B of the Code of Judicial Ethics.
In June, Sicari's lawyer, E. Drew Britcher, requested that the Supreme Court review the committee's decision de novo.
Britcher argued in a brief that nothing in Sicari's act in any way cast himself or the judiciary in a bad light. He said Sicari has gone to great lengths to keep his two careers separate, never mentioning on stage that he's a judge or a lawyer and refraining from doing comedy about law or lawyers.
"In his comedy, he doesn't get into the fact that he's a lawyer. He doesn't get into the fact that he's a municipal court judge," said Britcher, of Britcher, Leone & Roth in Glen Rock. "Most of his performances are driven by improvisation and there is never a mention of his day time profession."
Britcher argued that Sicari scrupulously keeps separate his twin vocations as entertainer and lawyer-judge. "Judge Vincenzo Sicari and Vince August are two separate and distinct entities running parallel with one another," he said.
Sicari's other line of work "does not impact the integrity of his courtroom, the judicial system or the confidence of the public," Britcher argued. "It is more likely that the practice of law by a part-time municipal judge would meet with more potential conflict and margin for error than Judge Sicari's other professional career."
Britcher also argued that the committee's reading of Canon 2B was far too broad, since part-time municipal judges are allowed to engage in for-profit activity as long as they do not use their judicial office to promote it.
That canon states in part: "A judge should not allow family, social, political, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. A judge should not lend the prestige of office to advance the private interests of others; nor should a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position of influence."
Sicari has done nothing like that, nor is there any case law in which the Supreme Court or any ethics committee has dealt with a situation such as this one, Britcher says.
In fact, there is at least one such case. Last May, North Arlington Municipal Judge Kenneth Del Vecchio, a longtime filmmaker, stepped down after the committee advised that he should not promote his movies. His most recent work was a satire about President Barack Obama, portraying him as a modern-day Faust. The film is about a cocaine-snorting college student who arranges to deliver souls to Satan. The main character goes on to attend Harvard Law School, work as a community organizer and become president.
The committee said that Del Vecchio's promotion of his films could create an appearance of impropriety and that the websites for his films and film-production company should not make any reference to his judicial position.
In Sicari's case, Britcher is asking the court for de novo review, asserting that he has so far been denied a fair and impartial hearing on the merits.
He requests that the court allow the judge to maintain his comedy and entertainment career, with appropriate restrictions on his separate identities, location of performance and lack of legal content.
Throughout the controversy, Sicari has continued to perform as Vince August, and he is scheduled to appear for three shows at Caroline's during the week of Oct. 18.