“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment VI – “The Rights of the Defendant”

Stanley Dersh citizenship poster recognizing the Sixth Amendment, 1959. (U.S. Government Publishing Office)

Amendment Six to the Constitution was ratified on December 15, 1791. It gives citizens a series of rights in criminal trials. They include the rights to a fast and public trial by an impartial jury, to be aware of the criminal charges, to confront witnesses during the trial, to have witnesses appear in the trial, and the right to legal representation. The official text is written as such:

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

In the era of the Amendment’s creation, criminal cases and police actions differed from modern times. In addition to the lack of full-time law enforcement services, the victims of a crime would be the ones to raise a trial, as opposed to prosecutors. In the place of lawyers, the victims and defendants would be their own representatives, and the juries would be composed of people who were often familiar with the parties involved. Before the Sixth Amendment, the approach to legal pursuits in England was inquisitorial by nature, as magistrates and judges would spearhead the search for evidence and questioning witnesses to the crime. In the new Constitutional system, both sides of a legal trial were responsible for their own respective investigations and searches for evidence. Through the 19th and early-20th centuries, professional, full-time law enforcement groups rose to prominence, and criminal trials became more sophisticated and complex. At the same time, the Sixth Amendment’s provisions were gradually extended by the Supreme Court to be applicable in state trials.

The right to counsel is considered to be one of the most important tenets of the Sixth Amendment. While the Constitution and the courts had since decided that a defendant can be represented by a lawyer of their choice, the question of legal representation for those who could not afford it went largely unaddressed. 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright determined that defendants are entitled to free-of-charge legal counsel. Further, the appointed lawyer is expected to provide substantial and effective aid to their clients. Complimenting the right to counsel is the right to a “speedy and public” trial. While the specific rules of this right have been interpreted differently throughout history, the general expectation is that a criminal trial is expected to begin with little delay and will not be conducted for too long. With the exception of the defendant requesting privacy, or for the sake of public safety or national security, criminal trials may be open to the public and media. Defendants also have the right to both subpoena other witnesses to have them testify in a trial, and to testify in their own defense. Additionally, the defendant has the right to be in constant attendance during the trial, but poor behavior can be used as grounds to remove them. For the jury’s composition, the Sixth Amendment grants citizens the right to a jury composed of impartial members drawn from the local community. Convictions in these trials are also forbidden unless every element of the crime has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the same impartial jury. In its totality, the Sixth Amendment was built from the changing scene of legal affairs, and in modern times those changes have been expanded upon and demonstrated in its effectiveness.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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