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NJ's highest court to hear 'joking judge' appeal

The Associated Press, Tuesday, February 26, 2013, 7:29am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) — A New Jersey judge is asking that state's highest court to have a sense of humor.

Attorneys for Vince A. Sicari plan to argue in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday that the part-time municipal court judge should be allowed to keep his other paying gig as a stand-up comic.

The 43-year-old Sicari is appealing a 2008 state ethics committee ruling that he can't continue working as a paid entertainer while on the bench.

Sicari, who performs under the name Vince August, said in court filings he has always kept his identity as a South Hackensack municipal court judge separate, and "there is never mention in either profession of the other."

He insists in court papers that he never even makes lawyer jokes or anything that could tarnish the profession. He claims much of his comedy is derived from nonwork-related personal observations, such as his upbringing as an Italian Catholic.

On Monday night, Sicari headlined at Caroline's comedy club in New York and brought down the house with his acerbic takes on current events, including the scandals surrounding Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. None of the jokes targeted the legal profession.

Afterward, Sicari declined to comment on his court case but said he would attend Tuesday's oral arguments.

Sicari has said he got hooked on standup comedy as a young boy after watching Richard Pryor.

"I immediately thought that's what I wanted to do," he said in an interview with NTDTV that appeared online in 2008.

At an early age, he began doing impressions, including Vinnie Barbarino, John Travolta's character on the TV show "Welcome Back, Kotter." He said in the TV interview that he remembers telling his parents when he was 12 he wanted to be a comedian. He said their answer was, "You're nuts."

As he practiced law and also did comedy, "I don't know which one turned into the side job, actually," he said.

Being a standup comedian can require some of the same skills as being a lawyer, he said. "You have to be very quick on your feet," he said.

New Jersey's Advisory Committee on Extra-Judicial Activities in 2010 reaffirmed its earlier decision that he could not continue as a paid performer.

Committee members said they were concerned that the "content of his comedy routine could give rise to an appearance of bias, partiality or impropriety or otherwise negatively affect the dignity of the judiciary," according to court papers.

Sicari countered that he should be able to supplement his $13,000-a-year income as a part-time judge "while actively engaged in an entertainment career which provides me a substantial portion of my income."

He says he makes hundreds of stand-up comedy appearances a year, including on stage, on network television, as a warm-up for Comedy Central audiences and in film. He's a member of the Screen Actors Guild and other professional performers unions.

The committee cites rules that judges may hold outside positions including gigs as musicians, as long as they don't get paid or play at casinos, political events or in scenarios that could present a conflict of interest. They also cite a prior ruling that determined "a municipal court judge may not appear in a TV commercial for Shredded Wheat."

Sicari argues in his appeal that he takes both his entertainment and his legal job seriously.

"This issue is about a person who affects lives in many ways in two distinct identities," he said in a court filing.

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