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Court forbids judge to moonlight as stand-up comic

Judge Vincenzo A. Sicari steps down from the municipal bench to pursue a career that has included appearances on 'What Would You Do?' and 'The Daily Show.'

September 20, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Vincenzo A. Sicari, a South Hackensack, N.J., municipal judge, has appeared on "What Would You Do?" and "The Daily Show."
Vincenzo A. Sicari, a South Hackensack, N.J., municipal judge, has appeared… (Frank Franklin II / Associated…)

NEW YORK — For years, Vince Sicari kept a secret from his family, friends, colleagues and clients.

By day, he practiced law. By night, he practiced laughs under his stage name, Vince August, building a reputation on the comedy club circuit. Over the years, he worked his way up to regular TV appearances, including Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and ABC's "What Would You Do?"

But Sicari this week became a victim of August's success when New Jersey's highest court ruled that he could either continue to serve in his part-time job as Municipal Court Judge Vincenzo A. Sicari or work as an on-stage comedian — but not both.

Performing stand-up comedy and portraying less-than-savory characters, including racist shopkeepers and homophobic bar patrons, is incompatible with the judicial code of conduct, the court ruled Thursday in a 7-0 decision.

"We cannot discount the possibility that a person who has attended a comedy club in New York City will find himself or herself before Judge Sicari in South Hackensack," the court said.

Hours later, Sicari gave up his judge's job, which paid $13,000 a year before taxes.

He did not, however, give up his robe.

"No no! It was expensive — it was half my paycheck!" Sicari said from his office in Ridgewood, N.J., about 20 miles west of Manhattan.

For all his joking about his pricey robe and his paltry pay as a judge, Sicari , 44, made it clear that he would miss the bench, where he presided over mostly mundane issues involving traffic violations, disorderly conduct, petty theft and relatively small cases.

But as Judge Sicari, he said, he had a chance to show the defendants that the justice system worked.

"Sitting on the bench, I had a connection with people," said Sicari, who grew up in New Jersey and graduated from law school in New York. "I had no delusions of grandeur, I had no delusions about becoming a Superior Court judge. The only thing I knew was I wanted to let people see court differently from the way they think it is."

He recalled a case involving a man facing the loss of his driver's license for an alleged infraction. The man was prepared to plead guilty just to end the case; Sicari persuaded him to take advantage of his right to a court-appointed defense attorney. The attorney discovered that the man was the victim of a technical error and had not committed an infraction, and prevented him from losing his license.

"That's why I loved that job. I felt like I was making a difference, " said Sicari.

Sicari's double life began in 1997, when he was working as an attorney in a New Jersey firm. He later went on to form his own one-man law practice.

He had long dreamed of being an entertainer. Sometimes after work, he would rush across the Hudson River to Manhattan, where comedy clubs offer aspiring comedians the chance to try out routines.

"My family didn't know, my friends didn't know," Sicari said. The last thing I wanted was for them to question my commitment to the office."

The turning point was the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It was one of those things that made me say, 'Throw caution to the wind. Just chase your dream, because we're only here day to day,' " Sicari said. He also stopped trying to keep his secret life a secret.

In January 2007, the Bergen Record did a story on Sicari, whose comedy career by that time had begun to take off. Later that year, South Hackensack, N.J., officials approached him about becoming a Municipal Court judge. Sicari advised them of his comedy life; they said they were aware of it and had even seen his routine. In 2008, Sicari became a part-time judge.

His stand-up career quickly came to the attention of a state advisory committee on extrajudicial activities, which opposed his moonlighting. The issue eventually made its way to the state's highest court, whose ruling focused in part on the characters Sicari has portrayed on ABC's "What Would You Do?"

The series features actors portraying characters engaged in often illegal, obnoxious and unpleasant activities in public to test public reaction.

It said that "most people" who watch a complete episode of "What Would You Do?" would realize that "the person harassing the woman using food stamps, the gay men in a sports bar, the same-sex couple at the diner or the young African American women in the store" is an actor.

But it said someone who switches channels before this becomes clear might not realize that, and could believe that Sicari's despicable characters are authentic.

Sicari said he had not expected to win his case and doesn't plan to appeal. Instead, he will focus on his comedy career.

He also has no plans to change his long-running rule against making fun of the justice system in his act. "Life is funny enough," he said.

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