A municipal judge in South Hackensack, New Jersey receives a mere $13,000/year in compensation. While the privilege of getting that little extra effort when making restaurant reservations under the title “Judge,” is nice, it’s not bring-my-income-up-to-the-poverty-line nice. Serving as a municipal judge is a public service, and the men and women who make this sacrifice are expected to find extra-judicial work to pay the bills.
Most are practicing lawyers. One is a stand-up comedian performing at Caroline’s and warming-up the crowd at the Colbert Report.
And somehow the ethics gatekeepers in New Jersey seem to think, of those two options, that the stand-up comedian is the one undermining the dignity of the bench.
I’ll be here all week, folks.
Later today, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear argument in a case to determine if a South Hackensack judge must quit his extra-judicial job as a stand-up comic. Judge Vince A. Sicari is the real name of stand-up comedian and actor Vince August. As a comedian, Vince August performs roughly 250 nights every year. For almost 15 years, Sicari has built a career as a comic, eventually supplanting his traditional law practice to devote the time to becoming a full-time comic.
But things started to sour in 2008, right after Sicari was named to the bench when the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities in New Jersey got involved:
But a state ethics board says Sicari must leave his entertainment career behind, arguing in court papers that his extra-judicial activities could “negatively affect the dignity of the Judiciary.” Board members cited his regular appearances on ABC’s “Primetime: What Would You Do?”, where he depicted several racist and homophobic characters in short segments designed to shock unsuspecting passers-by and television audiences. They say the episodes could make defendants question his impartiality.
The ABC show in question is basically a modern version of Candid Camera, where comedic actors put unsuspecting folks in uncomfortable positions. A possible litigant would have to be really stupid to confuse the bits in the show with an actor’s true beliefs. The whole point of the show is that the actors don’t believe the racist and homophobic things they’re doing and they’re daring innocent bystanders to do the right thing and stand up to them. Apparently everyone on this New Jersey Advisory Committee falls into the really stupid category.
The most damaging fact to the case against Judge Sicari is the suggestion that warming-up the Colbert Report crowd undermines the dignity of bench:
He has warmed up audiences before tapings of “The Colbert Report.” He even cracked jokes before an appearance by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor earlier this month to plug her new memoir.
“It seems a bit unusual that a United States Supreme Court justice can appear on the show but a municipal court judge making [$13,000] a year can’t warm up the crowd,” said E. Drew Britcher, Sicari’s lawyer and friend.
Yes, it’s hard to say that a venue graced by a Supreme Court justice lacks the proper judicial dignity.
Maybe judges should be judged on their actual performance. On that score, by all accounts, Judge Sicari excels.
Attorneys who have appeared before Sicari sounded surprised to learn of his side career, praising him for running an efficient and fair courtroom.
“He’s actually very professional on the bench,” said Marc D’Arienzo, who has argued several cases in front of Sicari. D’Arienzo said he never noticed Sicari treating minority defendants unfairly, and “I never got the impression that he was a stand-up comic.”
Maybe it’s the long-standing trauma of New Jersey’s reputation for corruption that makes its judiciary such straight-edge jerks. A couple years back, they ordered Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson to stop promoting the fact that HBO had made a show out of his book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.” Given that Nucky Thompson is not about to stroll into the courtroom, it’s unclear what biases someone could take from Judge Johnson’s work.
But the dumbest aspect of this case, to my mind, is the implication that keeping up a traditional legal practice or hobnobbing with political figures is a more honorable use of a judge’s spare time. While a municipal judge may not be setting a ton of precedents, playing both sides of the bench introduces conflicts of interest when your ruling in one case could assist your client in another. We already have complaints over judges and lawyers being too friendly (second item), why would putting them all in the same circles improve impartiality?
And hanging out with political figures? While one could argue Dick Cheney is more dignified than Jon Stewart — and I won’t — Justice Scalia’s decision to go hunting with Cheney weeks before the Court heard Cheney’s appeal is a much more frightening prospect to justice than someone working Caroline’s.
Keeping judges out of the incestuous legal community could only be a good thing.
And the best part of Sicari’s routine:
“I refuse to do a law joke,” Sicari said at the time. “Superman doesn’t talk about Clark Kent.”
Amen. Why take on the low-hanging fruit of stupid lawyers? Like the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities.
Ethics Panel Says South Hackensack Judge Can’t Be Stand-up Comic; Court to Rule [NorthJersey.com]
Boardwalk Empire Author Muzzled [The Observer]