TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — It may have been his toughest crowd yet.
In a decidedly humorless proceeding Tuesday, New Jersey's Supreme Court heard arguments over whether a municipal judge can keep his other paying gig as an actor and stand-up comic.
Vince A. Sicari's attorneys argued that the longtime comedian, who performs under the name Vince August, has always kept his identity as a South Hackensack municipal court judge separate, and "there is never mention in either profession of the other."
The 43-year-old Sicari is appealing a 2008 state ethics committee ruling that said he can't continue working as a paid entertainer while working part-time as a judge overseeing things like traffic ticket cases and disorderly persons offenses.
Kim D. Ringler of the state attorney general's office argued in favor of the ban, saying municipal judges represent the most frequent contact the public has with the justice system. Some of the characters Sicari has depicted on TV could confuse the public and reflect badly on the judiciary, she said.
"His actions detract from the dignity of his judicial office and may reflect adversely on the judge's impartiality," Ringler said of Sicari's performances.
Sicari's attorney, E. Drew Britcher, countered that the public is able to tell the difference between Sicari's professional demeanor as a judge and his roles as actor and comedian.
"It's important to recognize that whether he be comedian or actor, he is in roles where he is not expressing ... his opinion," Britcher said.
Sicari makes $13,000 a year as a part-time judge. He argues he is equally passionate about each of his jobs, though his entertainment work earns him more income and entitles him to health benefits.
He never cracks jokes on the bench and never lets on that he moonlights as a comic, Britcher said. On stage, he doesn't touch lawyer jokes, the lawyer said.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner questioned whether Sicari's comedic routines touched on topics considered commonplace in the comedy world, including "remarks demeaning individuals on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socio-economic status," which are prohibited under judge's rules of conduct.
Britcher said Tuesday that much of Sicari's comedy is derived from personal observations outside of work, 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, but his humor did touch on the categories Rabner mentioned.
Several justices questioned whether the public had the ability to separate Sicari's position as a judge from roles he has played on the ABC hidden camera show "What Would You Do?" in which he has portrayed homophobic and racist characters.
Associate Justice Anne M. Patterson asked about a person who watches such a skit on TV and then comes into court for a traffic ticket hearing. "Is that person going to have their confidence in the dignity of the judiciary affected?" Patterson asked.
Ringler, arguing that the roles of judge and comedian are incompatible, cited the example of the actor Larry Hagman, who was said to have been berated in public by fans who associated him with his role as the conniving J.R. Ewing in the long-running television series "Dallas."
Sicari declined to comment after his Monday night appearance or following Tuesday's Supreme Court arguments, other than to say that he loved being a performer.
Sicari 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.
He 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 one of Vinnie Barbarino, John Travolta's character on the TV show "Welcome Back, Kotter." He told the interviewer that he remembers telling his parents when he was 12 he wanted to be a comedian. He said their answer was, "You're nuts."
Being a standup comedian requires some of the same skills as being a lawyer, he said. "You have to be very quick on your feet," he said.