Have you heard the one about the judge who moonlighted as a comedian? It wasn't a laughing matter for the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled recently that Municipal Court Judge Vince Sicari — who also appeared in comedy clubs and on television under the name Vince August — couldn't judge by day and joke by night. So Sicari is hanging up his robe.
We understand the Supreme Court's concern about the importance of judicial impartiality and the appearance thereof (as a lawyer might say). Still, it's depressing that the court believes that some citizens of South Hackensack, N.J., wouldn't be able to differentiate between a real-life judge and a show-business persona.
No one would mistake Sicari for Antonin Scalia. The Municipal Court on which he served part time — receiving a salary of $13,000 — deals with parking tickets, bad checks, fish and game violations and minor criminal offenses. But even the humblest of magistrates is covered — appropriately — by canons of ethics that require judges "to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety" and to maintain "high standards of conduct."
The Supreme Court said Sicari's dual career was incompatible with such standards. Yet it acknowledged that "the record contains no evidence that Judge Sicari has ever conducted proceedings in his courtroom in any other manner than a professional one."
So what was the problem? The court expressed concern that a litigant, witness or lawyer would mix up the man on the bench with the comic who made self-deprecating jokes about his Italian American upbringing or the actor who played a waiter who wouldn't serve an interracial family. Sicari enacted the latter role as a regular on "What Would You Do?," a reality show in which actors engage in outrageous behavior to provoke a risible reaction from bystanders.
Sicari argued that it was ridiculous for anyone to draw conclusions about his judicial or personal attitudes from the roles he assumed in a work of entertainment. "That's a character I'm playing, on TV," he said. "If I was in 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' would you think I was a pirate?" The Supreme Court worried, however, that some viewers might change the channel before realizing that what they were watching was a staged encounter.
It's hard to shake the impression that what really bothered the court about Sicari's night job was that it was too tacky a sideline for a jurist, even a lowly one. But a judge who follows the letter of the law in the courtroom shouldn't be removed for trying to make people laugh outside of it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun