In the Matter of Advisory Letter No. 3-11 and Opinion No. 12-08 of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities, A-23 September Term 2010, A-26 September Term 2011; Supreme Court; per curiam opinion; decided September 19, 2013. On petitions for review of decisions of Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities. DDS No. 04-1-1375 [33 pp.]
Following graduation from law school, Vincenzo August Sicari was admitted to the practice of law in New Jersey and enrolled in acting classes. Since then, he has attempted to simultaneously develop his legal career and his entertainment career, appearing in television pilot episodes, films, and commercials and regularly appearing as a stand-up comedian at a noted comedy club in New York City.
Sicari, who practices law as Vince A. Sicari and performs under the name Vince August, maintains that he has carefully separated his legal and comedic identities. He claims very few people knew of his dual careers. However, in 2007 the The Record of Hackensack published a story about him that revealed both careers.
In January 2008, Sicari was appointed as a part-time municipal judge in South Hackensack. When The Record requested a follow-up interview, Sicari sought guidance from the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities. The committee issued Opinion No. 12-08, finding that his entertainment activities were not compatible with his judicial position.
Following advice from the assignment judge that he cease his entertainment career while serving as a municipal court judge and that he refuse the newspaper interview, Sicari sought reconsideration. The committee ratified its earlier advice.
Sicari’s petition for review was granted by the Supreme Court. Thereafter, he asked the advisory committee if his participation in What Would You Do?, a television show in which actors play out real-life scenarios in public places to capture the reaction of the public, was permissible. The committee issued Advisory Letter No. 3-11, advising Sicari that his participation could create an appearance of impropriety.
Sicari argues that he should be allowed to simultaneously pursue a career as an entertainer and serve as a municipal court judge. He contends that he has maintained the integrity and professionalism of the judiciary and has made every effort to keep his identities separate.
Held: Sicari’s career as an actor and a comedian is incompatible with the Code of Judicial Conduct and, therefore, he cannot serve as municipal court judge while continuing with that career.
Judges who serve on the municipal court, even those who serve in part-time positions and have other professional or nonprofessional activities and sources of income, are governed by the Code of Judicial Conduct as implemented through the Guidelines on Extrajudicial Activities. Canon 1 of the code requires judges to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and to adhere to “high standards of conduct.” Canon 2 requires judges to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.” The guidelines direct judges to guard against the appearance of bias or partiality or the perception of prejudgment of issues likely to come before them.
Canon 5 requires judges to avoid any extrajudicial activities that would cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially, demean the judicial office, or interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties.
The court reviews the various venues and modes in which Sicari pursues his entertainment career. It considers each of the episodes of What Would You Do? in which he appeared and a DVD of three comedy performances. It notes that Sicari advised that he was unable to provide a copy of a film titled Vinsanity, which he wrote, starred in, and directed and which he considers the centerpiece of his career to date.
The court says that the record belies Sicari’s assertion that he has separated his two careers, noting that The Record readily associated Sicari with Vince August and expressing little doubt that others who have attended his comedy performances or seen What Would You Do?, have made or will make the same association. The concern is whether once a member of the public makes that association, he can divorce the comedy routine or the roles played by Vince August from Judge Sicari.
The court says the failure to produce Vinsanity permits it to infer that it is replete with humor that is not befitting a municipal court judge and has the clear capacity to demean his judicial office and cast doubt on his ability to act impartially. Similarly, although the comedy club routine is relatively benign, the failure to supply more than a single clip leads to the inevitable inference that many, if not most, of his other routines are not so benign and express views about ethnic groups, religions and religious practices that can demean the court’s integrity.
The court observes that the municipal court is the only court in which most people will ever appear and is the face of the judiciary in this state. Therefore, it is imperative that a municipal court judge conduct the proceedings in his court fairly, impartially, and in accordance with appropriate standards of decorum and that he conduct his personal and professional life to avoid disparaging the role of the municipal court.
Although acknowledging that there is no evidence that Sicari has ever conducted court proceedings in other than a professional manner, the court says the problem is the possibility that a litigant, witness, or attorney appearing before him will recognize him as Vince August. Thus, the court must consider whether that person can reasonably believe that the man who crafts comedy routines demeaning his ethnic and religious upbringing and accepts roles that regularly disparage the needy, handicapped, and overweight and harass racial minorities can impartially and objectively adjudicate the case before him without regard to the human conditions disparaged in his self-crafted routines and scripted roles.
The court says Sicari, the lawyer, may be free to pursue a career as an actor and comedian. However, once he chose to serve as a municipal court judge, he became subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct and may not pursue any activity that has the capacity to demean his office or cause anyone to question his impartiality. The focus of his comedy and his decision to participate in a television show in situations that demean, ridicule, or embarrass others based on their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, or physical characteristics are not consistent with the high standards of conduct expected of a judge.
Therefore, the court holds that Sicari may not serve as a municipal court judge while continuing his acting and comedy career.
Chief Justice Rabner, Justices LaVecchia, Albin, Hoens and Patterson, and Judges Rodriguez and Cuff, both temporarily assigned, join in this opinion.
For appellant Sicari — E. Drew Britcher (Britcher, Leone & Roth; Britcher and Mindy M. Roth on the letter briefs). For respondent Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities — Kim D. Ringler, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).