- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Can a sitting judge publicize a film that takes a satirical stab at President Obama? In the State of New Jersey the answer is no.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of New Jersey Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Affairs advised New Jersey Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Del Vecchio that he “should not be interviewed, promote and participate in the press and publicity” accompanying the release of his new movie “O.B.A.M. Nude,” a political satire which Mr. Del Vecchio wrote, produced and starred in. In the film a college student makes a deal with the devil to become president. The plot is loosely based on the career of Barack Obama, a fact that Mr. Del Vecchio believes is the root of the dispute.

But rather than accept the committee’s ruling, Mr. Del Vecchio resigned. “They put me in an impossible position,” he said, “but my free speech rights are much more important to me than a judgeship.”

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Times, Mr. Del Vecchio detailed the dispute with the New Jersey judicial administration that led to him leaving the bench. Mr. Del Vecchio is an attorney who had established himself as a legal author, novelist, and filmmaker when he was appointed a Municipal Court Judge in the Borough of North Arlington, New Jersey in January 2010. “O.B.A.M. Nude” had been shown six months earlier at the Hoboken International Film Festival, which Mr. Del Vecchio founded and chairs. The borough council was well aware of the film and Mr. Del Vecchio’s background when he was appointed. “It was more than public knowledge,” he said. An attempt to force him to sign a confidentiality agreement barring him from using anything that happened in court in his writing or movie career was determined to violate state law.

Mr. Del Vecchio enjoyed being a judge for the brief time he was on the bench. “I loved administering justice,” he said. “I made decisions based on those interests, and that was a great feeling, not being swayed or moved by anything else.” But he had continued his career as a writer and filmmaker, and when the “O.B.A.M. Nude” national release neared he filed notice with the Committee on Extrajudicial Affairs, as was required. It never occurred to him it would be a problem. “Justices of the Supreme Court write books and go on promotional tours,” he said. “I didn’t see a difference.”

But court administrators did. The committee’s letter stated that promotion of “O.B.A.M. Nude” - as well as two other films, “An Affirmative Act” and “Fake,” scheduled for release in June - was “improper or could create an appearance of impropriety.” The committee did not cite any precedent or specific rule on which its opinion was based, or explain what was improper about promoting a film. Mr. Del Vecchio concluded that the ruling was based on his film’s satirical take on President Obama. “Either they are saying what Supreme Court Justices do is improper,” he said, “or they just did not like the content of my film.”

Even though the committee said its views were purely advisory, Mr. Del Vecchio was unconvinced. Colleagues advised him that if he acted against the advice of the committee, “there would be a judicial complaint filed against me immediately, and the sanctions would have been severe,” he said. “I would have been in a lot of trouble, my legal career would have been threatened.” At that point, he said, “either I shut up or I resign. And that made the decision very easy.”

The film was released this week, and Mr. Del Vecchio is philosophical about the turn of events that drove him from the bench. “This sends a terrible message,” he said, “that as a member of the judiciary - in the state of New Jersey at least - you don’t have the same rights as others.”

“Most people would just shut up,” he added. “But I wont.”

James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of “This Time We Win: Rethinking the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).


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