New York Court of Appeals building. New York Court of Appeals building. Photo by Rick Kopstein

A Schenectady County Court judge should not have determined an appeal of his own previous decision, the state’s Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

After Schenectady County Court Judge Matthew Sypniewski was elected to the position in November 2014, he was assigned an appeal for which he had found the defendant, Brian Novak, guilty of all charges when he served as a Schenectady City Court judge. In his capacity as a county court judge, Sypniewski affirmed Novak’s conviction.

In an opinion written by Associate Judge Paul Feinman, the state’s highest court ruled that it’s a violation of due process when the “sole judge deciding a criminal defendant’s appeal as of right is the same judge who also presided over defendant’s pretrial motions and bench trial” and that Sypniewski should have recused himself from the case.

“In this case, the same judge ruled upon defendant’s pretrial motions, served as the trier of fact, convicted defendant, sentenced defendant, and then proceeded to serve as the sole reviewing judge on the appeal. On these facts, there was a clear abrogation of our state’s court structure that guarantees one level of independent factual review as of right. Here, there was a facial appearance of impropriety,” Feinman wrote in the opinion.

In August 2012, Novak was arraigned in Schenectady City Court on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated and related traffic infractions. The following year, the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office filed a superseding prosecutor’s information charging Novak with the lesser offense of driving while ability-impaired. Novak proceeded to a bench trial before then-City Court Judge Sypniewski, who found him guilty on all charges.

Novak, a Schenectady resident, appealed his conviction to the county court, which was assigned to Sypniewski once he was elected to the position.

Tracey Brunecz, an assistant district attorney for Schenectady County, argued before the court in September that the situation did not require a mandatory recusal by Sypniewski (NYLJ Sept. 6). Brunecz did not return a request for comment.

In the opinion, Feinman wrote that the People’s argument in the case “misses the mark.”

“In any case, while there currently exists no explicit statutory or constitutional provision in New York prohibiting judges from reviewing their own judgment on appeals, our laws and court rules have long sought to purge actual bias and the possibility of bias from our courtroom,” the opinion said.

The appeals court further stated “under principles of due process … a judge may not act as appellate decision-maker in a case of which the judge previously presided at trial.”

“Although there was no evidence of partiality here, due process must still safeguard the appearance of impartiality to promote public confidence in the courts,” Feinman later added, reversing the county court’s order affirming the conviction and remitting the back case to county court in Schenectady for the appeal to be heard by a different judge.

Danielle Neroni Reilly, Novak’s attorney, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Associate Judges Jenny Rivera, Leslie Stein, Eugene Fahey, Michael Garcia and Rowan Wilson concurred in the opinion written by Feinman.