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NJ’s highest court hears ‘joking judge’ appeal
Question of the Day
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - It may have been his toughest crowd yet.
In a decidedly humorless proceeding Tuesday, New Jersey’s Supreme Court heard arguments over whether a municipal judge can keep his other paying gig as an actor and stand-up comic.
Vince A. Sicari’s attorneys argued that the longtime comedian, who performs under the name Vince August, has always kept his identity as a South Hackensack municipal court judge separate, and “there is never mention in either profession of the other.”
The 43-year-old Sicari is appealing a 2008 state ethics committee ruling that said he can’t continue working as a paid entertainer while working part-time as a judge overseeing things like traffic ticket cases and disorderly persons offenses.
Kim D. Ringler of the state attorney general’s office argued in favor of the ban, saying municipal judges represent the most frequent contact the public has with the justice system. Some of the characters Sicari has depicted on TV could confuse the public and reflect badly on the judiciary, she said.
“It’s important to recognize that whether he be comedian or actor, he is in roles where he is not expressing … his opinion,” Britcher said.
Sicari makes $13,000 a year as a part-time judge. He argues he is equally passionate about each of his jobs, though his entertainment work earns him more income and entitles him to health benefits.
He never cracks jokes on the bench and never lets on that he moonlights as a comic, Britcher said. On stage, he doesn’t touch lawyer jokes, the lawyer said.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner questioned whether Sicari’s comedic routines touched on topics considered commonplace in the comedy world, including “remarks demeaning individuals on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socio-economic status,” which are prohibited under judge’s rules of conduct.
On Monday night, Sicari headlined at Caroline’s comedy club in New York and brought down the house with his acerbic takes on current events, including the scandals surrounding Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. None of the jokes targeted the legal profession, but his humor did touch on the categories Rabner mentioned.
Several justices questioned whether the public had the ability to separate Sicari’s position as a judge from roles he has played on the ABC hidden camera show “What Would You Do?” in which he has portrayed homophobic and racist characters.
Associate Justice Anne M. Patterson asked about a person who watches such a skit on TV and then comes into court for a traffic ticket hearing. “Is that person going to have their confidence in the dignity of the judiciary affected?” Patterson asked.
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