Vincenzo Sicari’s career as a judge came to an end Thursday as the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that his performances at comedy clubs and on television in his alter ego, Vince August, could cast the judiciary in a bad light.
“To be sure, the routines are designed to be funny,” the court said. “We must acknowledge, however, that many regard the maxim ‘many a true word is said in jest’ as a fundamental truth.”
The justices were unpersuaded by the South Hackensack municipal court judge’s arguments that he never cracks jokes about the legal profession and that he goes to great lengths to keep his judicial and stage identities separate.
“Once he chose to serve as a municipal court judge, his conduct outside the courtroom became subject to a higher standard,” they said. “He may not pursue any activity that has the capacity to demean his judicial office or causes anyone to question his impartiality.”
Sicari resigned from the bench Thursday afternoon after discussing the matter with his superiors. “The Supreme Court told me I couldn’t pursue both careers and … I had to make a choice,” he says. “I chose the entertainment path over the judicial path because it’s something I’ve been doing for years. I want to make the dream a reality.”
The ruling was the final chapter of a process that started in 2008, when Sicari, new to the bench, asked for guidance from the court’s Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activity about the ethics of being interviewed by The Record of Hackensack about his comedy act.
The committee gave a thumbs down to the interview as well as to the second career. Despite his stage name, there was enough information on the Internet to make the link to Sicari, including an earlier 2007 article in The Record and other online database information, some showing his photograph, the panel said.
Relying on Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2, the panel cited the risk “viewers could recognize him,” which would “likely create a perception of bias, predisposition, a lack of impartiality,” and risk “impair[ing] the dignity and esteem in which the court should be held.”
Sicari’s material is a mix of ranting and self-deprecating jokes about his personal life, racial stereotypes, religion and society in general.
He performs regularly on ABC TV’s What Would You Do?, a Candid Camera-type show that captures how people react to feigned instances of discrimination and other unfair treatment.
In one sketch, Sicari portrayed a homophobic bar patron who attempted to incite others to react to his harassment of a same-sex couple. In another, he played a waiter who refused to serve an interracial father and daughter, in order to incite other diners’ responses.
That seemed to trouble some of the justices when the case was argued at the Supreme Court in October, despite the insistence of Sicari’s lawyer, E. Drew Britcher, that there is no crossover between the two careers.
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?
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked, 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.
But in Thursday’s opinion, the court was clearly unconvinced.
“In the course of his routines, [Sicari] has demeaned certain people based on national origin and religion, has revealed his political leanings, and has declared his dislike for and intolerance of children,” the court said.
“We cannot ignore the distinct possibility that a person, who has heard a routine founded on humor disparaging certain ethnic groups and religions, will not be able to readily accept that the judge before whom he or she appears can maintain the objectivity and impartiality that must govern all municipal court proceedings.”
The court found it “stunning” that Sicari could not provide the court with Vinsanity, a DVD of his act. “The failure to produce ‘Vinsanity’ permits this Court to infer that it is replete with humor that is not befitting a municipal court judge,” the justices said.
Britcher, of Glen Rock’s Britcher, Leone & Roth, was away from his office and could not be reached.