Ethics Quiz: Judge Shecky’s Dilemma

"Here come de judge!"

“Here come de judge!”

Vince A. Sicari is a municipal judge in South Hackensack, N.J. who moonlights as a stand-up comic, and a fairly successful one at that, named Vince August.

He is now sending his lawyer to argue before the New Jersey Supreme Court that he should be allowed to continue his night and weekend job, overturning a 2008 ethics ruling that for a judge to do stand-up creates  “an appearance of bias, partiality or impropriety or otherwise negatively affect the dignity of the judiciary,” in violation of the Judicial Conduct Code. The issue is complicated by the fact that municipal judges almost have to moonlight as something—they earn only $13,000 a year. Sicari argues that his comedian gigs generate the bulk of his income, and that the two careers are separate. He says doesn’t make jokes about his cases or lawyers, nor sensitive issues involving race and gender, and on the bench he is as serious as, well, a judge.

Thus, your Ethics Quiz of the Day gives you an opportunity to judge “Judge Shecky”:

Is it ethical for a judge to moonlight as a stand-up comic?

Law professor/blogger Ann Althouse thinks so, writing:

“What a drag it is to be a judge! The requirement of sobriety is easy for some, a terrible burden for others. I hope Sicari wins his case, but if he loses, I hope he dumps his day job and lets us hear all the lawyer jokes he’s been keeping to himself in his effort to avoid confusing the public and reflecting badly on the judiciary. If you’re really good, Mr. Sicari, bust loose and confuse the hell out of us with all the bad reflections you’ve got.”

The professor’s point is that people should have no trouble keeping the judge and his funny alter-ego separate, contrary to the expressed fears of Judge Sicari’s critics, and that a man shouldn’t be barred from making a living because people are stupid.

As a lawyer and ethicist who has always had at least one foot and sometimes two in the world of show business, even during law school, I am certainly sympathetic to the judge’s plight. I am not a judge, however. The judge is both an authority figure in the nation’s justice system and a living symbol of it. Lawyer ethics rules don’t prohibit the “appearance of impropriety”, but judges, like government officials, must be concerned with appearances because they must do everything in their power to build and maintain the public’s trust in their wisdom, competence, diligence, and, yes, seriousness.

I think it’s unethical to only pay a judge $13,000. Nonetheless, there are some completely legal occupations that such a judge simply cannot engage in to pay the bills while he or she is on the bench daily, and among these are:

  • circus clown
  • sideshow geek
  • bouncer
  • fart musician
  • Farrelly Brothers movie actor
  • pitch man for Extens
  • professional wrestler
  • female impersonator
  • underwear model
  • stripper
  • porn star

..and yes, stand-up comic. The fact that the judge performs under an assumed name suggests to me that he understands this too.

It’s not so much that a judge can’t be a good stand-up comic, but rather that a stand-up comic can’t be a trustworthy judge.

Judge Shecky needs to find a more appropriate day job.

__________________________________

Facts: ABA Journal

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

 

11 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Judge Shecky’s Dilemma

    • How: I think this goes back to the thing about “proving a negative”. The standard should not be to prove that a job is appropriate. It should be to prove that it is inappropriate.

      What if he was a doorman? A garbage man? What if he lived within the confines of the $13,000 (below poverty line) and used state resources to get by?

      • Door man? Garbage man? I see no character or dignity component in those.
        I think the comedian-judge is a close call, but it really opens up a slippery slope. Maybe Michelle horning in on the Oscars has me gunshy.

  1. Not that I see any reason why a municipal judge SHOULDN’T do standup, I should think circus clown would be an even better sideline, provided that he’s performing as an Auguste. Odds are that no one would realize who was behind all the makeup, and even if they did, who’s gonna assail someone whose job it is to make little kids laugh?

    • 1. If the failure to recognize him is the reasoning, it fails because that suggests there’s something wrong if they DO recognize him.
      2. Clowns are by definition undignified.
      3. Also creepy.

  2. Jack,
    I think it would have to come down to his act itself, not necessarily the profession. I’m with you on the appearance of impropriety and the dignity of the judge but the man needs to make a living. Before I form more of an opinion maybe you can answer a question for me: can the judge be a lawyer on the side? If he can, wouldn’t that create the appearance of bias or impropriety based on the cases he is arguing? If he cannot then he must find unrelated work so it comes down to what secondary skill does the judge posses that can earn him a decent wage and not interfere with the hours he is seated as a judge.

    • He can practice law, and that’s what most of the municipal judges do. They just have to recuse when there is a conflict. Shecky’s argument is that he spends so much time on the comedy circuit and makes so much money that he can’t afford to be a lawyer.

      • If he’s making more money as a comic than he would as a lawyer, then I’d say his job as a judge IS the moon-lighting job.

        He’s got a cool gig that lands him a $13,000 beer-stipend per annum and a funny conversation piece: “Yeah you know I also rule on cases on the side…”

      • I went and read the article; I normally do but missed it this time. Thanks for answering though. I still think it comes down to his act itself. With that said him playing a racist and homophobe may have crossed the line even though it was just acting.

  3. Jack: You point out that doing standup comedy is borderline at best in maintaining the public decorum usually expected of a judge. I can’t dispute that… anymore than I can dispute that for a judge to earn a staggeringly pitiful $13K a year is rather pathetic, as well as being possibly illegal in itself. There’s also another factor: You get what you pay for. If you pay a judge less than a 16 year old working as a short order cook, What are you going to expect in return. Judgeships are important positions!

    While an unusual sideline for a judge, I might also offer the opinion that a lot might have to do with how Judge Sicari conducts himself in his off-bench persona. First off; having a good, incisive sense of humor is not a drawback for a public figure. It’s often, in fact, a breath of fresh air (as it were) WHEN it’s done within the boundaries of good taste and (therefore) good judgement… something an actual judge should have a surfeit of.

    I’d ask this. Does Judge Sicari (as Vincent August, professional circuit comedian) engage in good humor fit for the same citizens (and their children) who serve in his court and on his juries? Or is his brand of humor the lower gutter style that now seems to dominate much of the genre and the putrid diatribes we can access on Comedy Central? Would Sicari take his act to a community center or have it deemed acceptable in a local church?

    If the latter, then I’d have no trouble with it. Unusual, perhaps, but not necessarily undignified. As I’ve said before, humor (like love!) is a characteristic of the higher forms of life. But tawdriness (like lust) is a baser element and the antithesis of higher motivations. Therefore, if “Vincent August” blows onto his stage like another Sam Kinnison or some depraved creature with an NEA grant, then he not only is defaming his office as judge, but is likewise doing so for his fellow citizens and community- and therefore is unworthy to serve as a judge in the first place.

    Humor is fine in its place. If Judge Sicari practices it responsibly, that’s okay. In any case, I’d prefer it done beyond the confines of his court. I still remember Judge Ito smiling and joking with the attorneys during the O.J. Simpson trial… on television and in the presence of the loved ones of two murdered young people. He should never have served in a judgeship again after that exhibition.

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