Vincenzo Sicari, a municipal judge who moonlights as a comedian, played the toughest room of his career on Tuesday: the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The court heard arguments on whether Sicari can continue as South Hackensack’s judge in view of the nature of his performances, which an advisory committee found incompatible with the decorum of judicial office.
Sicari, alias "Vince August," has been doing comedy alongside his River Edge legal practice since 1997, and kept at it after becoming a judge in 2008.
His material is a mix of ranting and self-deprecating jokes about his personal life, racial stereotypes, religion and society in general.
But on Tuesday, the focus was primarily on Sicari’s TV work, including appearances on ABC TV’s Primetime: What Would You Do?
His lawyer, E. Drew Britcher, pointed out that Sicari often warms up the audience on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, even when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared as a guest, promoting her memoir.
"Yet, the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities says Vince Sicari, as Vince August, a municipal court judge in South Hackensack, cannot do both," said Britcher, of Britcher, Leone & Roth in Glen Rock.
Britcher suggested that the rules on what a New Jersey judge can or cannot do should be revised to reflect income differences between part-time municipal judges and full-time Superior Court judges. "Distinctions need to be made," he said.
Britcher said Sicari’s role on What Would You Do? — a Candid Camera-type show — has expanded and his characters have become edgier. The show captures how members of the public react to feigned instances of discrimination and other unfair treatment. In one sketch, Sicari portrays a homophobic bar patron who attempted to incite others to react to his harassment of a same-sex couple having a drink.
Justice Barry Albin noted that the Canons of Judicial Conduct prohibit judges from behavior that could bring the judiciary into disrepute or cause the public to lose confidence in the judiciary.
Britcher said that as a judge, Sicari is impartial and his role as an actor and comic does not spill over to the bench.
Justice Anne Patterson raised the possibility of someone seeing Sicari playing a bigoted person on TV one night, then having to appear before him the next day on a traffic ticket. Would that person, she asked, be able to have confidence in Sicari’s integrity?
"Absolutely," Britcher said. "He has the highest regard for everyone."
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner raised a similar point. What if Sicari plays a role on TV in which he is harassing someone and then hears a harassment case the next day?
Britcher said people are able to separate individuals from acting roles.
Albin, who expressed disappointment at the lack of a record for the justices to review and specifically the absence of videotapes, asked Britcher where Sicari draws the line.
"He cannot do comedy on the law, or litigants or the practice of law," Britcher said.
Deputy Attorney General Kim Ringler, representing the advisory committee, said judges, especially municipal jurists, must expect limitations on their conduct.
"Municipal court judges are the faces of the judiciary," Ringler said, noting they handle about 6 million cases a year.
There are acceptable ways for part-time judges to supplement their incomes, she said, and most have regular law practices.
"But serving as an actor for pay violates longstanding rules of judicial conduct," Ringler said. "He violated the bright-line rules."
It is especially grievous, she added, that he is "employed to deceive the public."
Justice Helen Hoens asked whether a judge could appear in a local play.
Yes, if there is no compensation, Ringler said. "Judges are not supposed to sequester themselves in an ivory tower."
Albin asked whether content should be taken into consideration.
"Content evaluation could take place," Ringler replied, adding that the advisory committee could be responsible for such a review.
What about playing a criminal in a police drama?, Albin asked.
"The committee would consider that to be impermissible," Ringler said.
Albin referred to Britcher’s argument that people are able to distinguish between actors and their real personas.
Ringler suggested otherwise, noting people often asked Robert Young, who played Dr. Marcus Welby on television, for medical advice and expressed feelings of hatred toward Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing on "Dallas."
Albin said the court may have to work out what is acceptable and what is not.
"That’s a valid concern," Ringler said. "A blanket prohibition may be an easier route." But she added that judges should review the rules in place and "act with exceptional caution and discretion."
Sicari has appeared at Caroline’s on Broadway, a New York City comedy club, and has done shows in other parts of the country and Canada. He has performed in commercials, TV shows such as As the World Turns and films such as Heckler, a 2007 documentary about an actor who takes on critics after starring in a film that was panned.
The advisory committee told him on May 13, 2008, in Opinion 12-08, that he should decline an interview request from a newspaper and stop performing, even at charity fundraisers, while he remained on the bench.
He wrote back on June 2, 2008, saying he would decline the interview, but asked whether he could continue doing stand-up under his stage name if he did not refer to his judicial status or perform in Bergen County, where South Hackensack is located.
He did not hear back until a May 6, 2010, letter from the committee ratified its earlier stance.
The case is In the Matter of Advisory Letter No. 3-11 and Opinion 12-08 of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities, A-23-10/A-26-11.