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New York Court of Appeals: Criminal Trial Judge Cannot Also Be Sole Appellate Judge

The New York Court of Appeals ruled on October 24, 2017 that the judge who presided over a defendant’s criminal trial cannot also act as the sole judge who presides over that defendant’s appeal as of right.

Brian Novak was convicted of driving while ability impaired by a judge in city court. He appealed the decision to county court, and during the pendency of his appeal, the original trial judge was elected to serve on the county court. After taking office, the same judge who found Novak guilty adjudicated his appeal. There were no surprises: the judge upheld his own ruling.

Novak appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, arguing that the judge should have recused himself from deciding the appeal. The government argued that because there was no statute that explicitly required the judge to recuse himself in this situation, he was free to exercise his discretion to decide the appeal.

The New York Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed with instructions that a different county court judge hear Novak’s appeal.

The Court of Appeals noted that under state law a defendant has a fundamental right to an appeal and that intermediate appellate court “are empowered to review both questions of law and fact.”  This ensures that the defendant has at least one impartial appellate review of the facts.

The Court determined that the issue implicated due process. It explained that New York’s court system is one of hierarchical review, and that “maintaining the integrity of that review process is of fundamental, constitutional importance.”

“[B]ecause our laws grant a right to challenge a judgment on direct appeal … a defendant is entitled to the minimum safeguards of due process under the federal and state constitution,” wrote the Court. One of those safeguards is, of course, the right to an impartial jurist. While there was no reason to question the judge’s impartiality, due process requires more. A judge must appear impartial as well. Clearly, where the same judge serves as both the trier of fact at trial and reviews the findings of facts upon appeal, “there is no opportunity for independent scrutiny by a new decision-maker….” As a result, “the appellate process is compromised, and due process has been violated.”

Accordingly, the Court held “that, under principles of due process, a judge may not act as appellate decision-maker in a case which the judge previously presided at trial.” See: People v. Novak, 2017 NY Slip Op 07384. 

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