The Rockin’ Judge

Acting Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic has an important decision to make, with potentially far-reaching implications: Does the classic rock band he used to play in need a new name?

So far, his children and co-workers have suggested Rock-n-Robes, L.L. Cool Judge and The Electric Chairs.

And while D’Emic, 57, has no plans to turn in his gavel for a new Fender guitar any time soon, at least now he knows he’s allowed to. A recent opinion from New York’s Committee on Judicial Ethics said state judges are free to play in bands for money or sell their artworks – as long as it doesn’t interfere with their day jobs.

While there was no rule that prohibited them from extra-judicial activities, two anonymous judges requested clarification from the ethics committee to see if it was proper to moonlight as musicians or artists.

“The judge who wishes to pursue part-time employment as a solo musician may do so only occasionally, for a fee, for family, friends, neighbors and others who are unlikely to appear in the judge’s court,” the committee of 26 current and former judges wrote this month.

D’Emic had a gig three weeks later at a bar where his band, Whippoorwill, used to play in the 1970s. He said the ethics rule was clarified to help judges who might want to earn some extra money – state judges make $136,700 annually but haven’t had a raise in 12 years.

Other states also have tried to address the issue of judges moonlighting after hours, said Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the American Judicature Society. Just like in New York, advisory opinions in Wisconsin and Massachusetts allow judges to sell their artworks. In Illinois, a judge was granted permission to play violin in a wedding, and another was told he can act in a play for an honorarium of only a few thousand dollars; additional compensation was prohibited. Judges in Ohio, Arizona and Massachusetts were told they can serve as referees for football, soccer and softball.

D’Emic isn’t expecting his music career to inflate his income very much, though.

“Now I don’t envision that it’s gonna help much ’cause I do have a day job and I can’t really spend a lot of time trying to find jobs at night to play gigs at,” D’Emic said. “But I would like to do it occasionally – less for the money, more for the fun.”

D’Emic, one of 10 siblings, first picked up a guitar and bass when he was in high school. He played alone and in bands while he attended Fordham University and later Brooklyn Law School, earning about $40 per show three times a week.

“I was able to pay my tuition and maybe even go out on a date if I could find somebody,” he said. “My kids can’t believe that anybody paid to hear me sing.”

He worked as a lawyer for 15 years before Gov. George Pataki appointed him a Court of Claims judge and assigned him to Brooklyn’s Supreme Court in 1996. He presides over domestic violence and mental health cases.

D’Emic stopped regularly playing guitar after he became a lawyer and would only pick it up occasionally. But when he went to a graduation party for a former bandmate’s son a week after the ethics ruling, the two played and sang songs by the Beatles, the Byrds and the Eagles. After their impromptu jam session, they called the final member of their band and decided to play together again.

The trio had an unpaid gig at the BallyBunion Bar in Brooklyn for a crowd of a few dozen friends and relatives. The audience cheered and sang along to a set list of songs including Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

D’Emic’s brother was proud of his performance.

“I was surprised. I wasn’t sure what was gonna come out of him,” Pat D’Emic said. “He sounded like I remember him when I was a kid.”

Though visibly nervous at first, D’Emic loosened up after a few songs. He tapped his left foot to the beat and closely watched his hand find the correct frets of his bass guitar as he sang the lead vocal line of the Beatles’ “Act Naturally,” with a big grin on his face. When the song’s final chord ended, the crowd erupted into applause, and the band’s lead singer, John Lepore, 59, wiped the sweat from D’Emic’s forehead.

Photo: AP Photo
Judge Matthew D’Emic, right, plays a gig with his Whippoorwill bandmates John LePore, center and Paul Cassone.

Paul Cassone, who plays lead guitar for the band, said he hopes they play more frequently and expand their repertoire.

“We had a ball,” said Cassone, 56. “It was like no time passed at all. I feel like I’m 18 again.”

The band’s next scheduled gig, also unpaid, is at Brooklyn Law School, D’Emic’s alma mater, in the fall.

And where will the tour bus go next?

“Madison Square Garden,” D’Emic says.