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The Judge Cannot be a Comedian

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The Vincent August Sicari Judicial Comedian Matter

This "New Jersey Issues" article concerned a local judge who moonlighted as a popular standup comedian, and faced a challenge from the bar.

South Hackensack Municipal Court Judge is a comedian

If you have watched ABC-TV's Primetime:  What Would You Do?, you have probably seen comedian Vince August.  He has also appeared on The Onion News Network, As the World Turns, and in his own comedy special, Vinsanity.  He also warms up audiences for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and plays clubs including Carolines on Broadway.

Meanwhile, if you've ever gotten a traffic ticket in South Hackensack, or were arrested on any of the various minor offenses from disorderly persons to possession of marijuana in that small town, you may have seen His Honor, Vincent A. Sicari, seated on the bench.  He also runs a local law practice in the Ridgewood/Paramus area.  If you thought he looked familiar, well, he's the same person:  Vince August is the comedic stage name of The Honorable Vincent A. Sicari, Esquire, Attorney at Law and Municipal Court Judge in South Hackensack.

And the ethics committee does not like that, and has told him that if he wants to keep serving two days a month as a judge for thirteen thousand dollars a year, he will have to give up his comedy work.  As of February 27th, the New Jersey Supreme Court has been asked to decide the question; they have delayed giving an answer, so they apparently do not think it so simple a matter as the ethics committee thought.

Let's be clear.  It is not as if Sicari is telling stories about court cases; his comedy audiences are unaware of his other job (or at least, they were before this became a major case) and his humor is more about home life and relationships.  Nor is he all that high profile as a judge--a retired police officer from a nearby small town when asked about him was surprised to learn that South Hackensack even had its own municipal court.  Sometimes his sketch comedy has been racist; but portraying a bigot is not the same as being one, and in fact is usually one of the best ways to lampoon bigotry.  It is a long leap to suggesting that defendants would recognize him and believe he is prejudiced against them from having seen him in a television sketch.  Most defendants would probably be more comfortable knowing that their judge actually does have a sense of humor, even if he doesn't find what they did particularly funny.

If there were any evidence that Sicari was being considered for a promotion, to serve in multiple jurisdictions or move to the appellate bench, this kind of inquiry would make sense.  Nothing of the sort has been suggested, and even in such a case, the fact that he moonlights as a reasonably successful comedian does not mean he could not do the job well.  The only evident reason for this to be an issue is the tendency among some highly educated reasonably intelligent people to believe that the unwashed masses are less intelligent than they really are.  C.S. Lewis observed this in connection with theologians trying to fix the liturgy from what they incorrectly thought common parishioners would misunderstand to what those common parishioners could not understand at all.  The case smacks of the sort of prejudice that says that ordinary people can't tell the difference between the actor and the role he plays, the author and the character he authors, or the comedian and the jokes he tells, and so will think that Robert Downey Jr. really is Iron Man, Alan Rickman really is Hans Gruber (or is he Severus Snape?), and Vince August really is the prejudiced characters he sometimes plays in sketch comedy.

Give the people more credit than that.

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The Judge Cannot be a Comedian

The New Jersey Supreme Court has now agreed with the ethics committee, giving Sicari the choice between ending his tenure on the bench and abandoning his career in entertainment.

His entertainment career earns him considerably more than the meager thirteen thousand dollar annual salary he gets as a municipal judge, and comes with health care benefits, so he has reluctantly announced his resignation from the bench.  He will continue to run his law practice in the Ridgewood/Paramus area.

The Court expressed the opinion that viewers of his various television appearances might not be able to distinguish the fictional characters he plays on such shows from his real self, and so believe that he holds the views expressed or portrayed by those characters.  Apparently the court thinks that defendants in the New Jersey court system are idiots.  At least, it seems likely that the honored justices are able to make such distinctions themselves and consider themselves above the norm; perhaps they ruled so because they found the distinction between truth and fiction too confusing.

On the bright side, if Vince August is no longer a judge, he is probably free to include stories from his court experiences in his future standup routines.

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