Moonlighting Judges Are At It Again
by John Browning    Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 10:03 am

When it comes to indulging in sidelines, lawyers have a fair amount of latitude.  There are lawyers who have gone into fields as diverse as broadcast journalism and creating Lego art.  Prominent Hollywood entertainment lawyer Harry Brittenham writes elaborate sci-fi/fantasy graphic novels in his spare time.  Litigator Neville Johnson’s alter ego is that of blues singer-songwriter Trevor McShane.  High-powered bankruptcy lawyer Kenneth Klee, when he’s not charging top dollar for legal advice, practices alternative medicine as an “energy healer” who says he can “talk to spirits, mend broken bodies and wounded souls and, if necessary, perform exorcisms,” according to the Wall Street Journal (and why shouldn’t it make sense for a lawyer to perform exorcisms?  After all, everyone says that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”).


But for judges, it’s a completely different story.  When it comes to doing anything other than being a judge, jurists are subject to considerable scrutiny because of judicial canons against lending the prestige of their office to advance private interests, or bringing the office into disrepute.  Because of this, members of the judiciary have to be very careful about their off-the-bench activities, and even hobbies and interests.  For example, in South Carolina, a magistrate judge recently had to get the blessing of an official ethics opinion before participating in a “Dancing With the Stars”-type of competition.  South Carolina’s Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct, in Opinion No. 4-2013, examined whether a full-time judge could participate as a dancer in a fund-raising event for the judge’s church.  In the event, the judge would be one of 5 dancers from the congregation paired up with a local dance professional, and donations would be solicited for the church, with people contributing (and voting for the winners) online.  According to the Committee, the judge could participate in the fundraising event, as long as he didn’t personally solicit donations, the identities of contributors were kept confidential, and the religious organization didn’t use the prestige of the judge’s office in fundraising efforts.


Dancing magistrates in South Carolina may be one thing, but what about a cooking judge in Florida?  The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee recently dealt with an inquiry from a judge who wanted to compete in a cook-off held during the 12th Annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival as a “means of community outreach and levity.”  Noting that while the cooking contest offered a cash prize for the winner, it was not a fundraiser, the Committee said it was okay.  The Committee reasoned that “participation in the cook-off would not appear to exploit the judge’s judicial position or involve the inquiring judge in frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.”  The Committee also pointed out that—regardless of the judge’s culinary skills—participation could be a good thing since “a judge should not become isolated from the community in which the judge lives.”


Dancing and cooking may be all well and good, but heaven forbid that a judge have a sense of humor that he shares with others.  At least that’s the reasoning of the New Jersey Supreme Court.  In September, New Jersey’s highest court considered the appeal of part-time municipal judge Vincent August Sicari, who for years juggled a daytime gig hearing traffic ticket cases on the city court bench for South Hackensack, N.J. with a night job as stand-up comedian “Vince August.”  In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Sicari’s comedy career was “incompatible with the Code of Judicial Conduct.”  Among other considerations, the court observed that Sicari’s comedy routine involved some jokes poking fun at national origin and religion, and it was possible “that a person who has heard a routine founded on humor disparaging certain ethnic groups and religions will not be able to readily accept that the judge before whom he or she appears can maintain objectivity and impartiality that must govern all municipal court proceedings.”  In the wake of the decision, Sicari resigned from his part-time judicial post.


Seriously?  Does religion and national origin really come up much in the context of traffic ticket cases?  I guess if you’re a judge you can dance in South Carolina, cook up a storm in Florida but no matter what you do, don’t make people laugh in New Jersey.

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