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Sixth Amendment

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Description: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and part of the Bill of Rights specifying the trial rights possessed by criminal defendants.


Significance: Beginning in the 1960's, the Supreme Court actively interpreted and defined the provisions of the Sixth Amendment to ensure that criminal defendants receive their protected entitlements in both federal and state courts.


The Sixth Amendment, added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, specifies the rights of defendants in the trial stage of the criminal law process, including the rights to a speedy and public trial, an impartial jury in the locale where the alleged crime was committed, information about the nature of charges being prosecuted, an opportunity to confront accusers and adverse witnesses, a compulsory process for obtaining favorable witnesses, and the assistance of counsel. For most of U.S. history, the Sixth Amendment and other provisions of the Bill of Rights protected individuals against actions by the federal government only. However, during the twentieth century, the Supreme Court ruled that many provisions of the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth Amendment, also applied to state and local governments. Therefore, defendants in all criminal prosecutions came to benefit from the protections afforded by the Sixth Amendment.


Right to Counsel

Before the twentieth century, the right to counsel provided by the Sixth Amendment simply meant that the government could not prevent a criminal defendant from hiring an attorney when the defendant could afford to do so. Defendants who lacked the necessary funds were required to defend themselves in court without professional assistance. The Court first expanded the right to counsel in Powell v. Alabama (1932). Powell, also known as the Scottsboro case, involved several African American defendants who were accused of raping two white women. The young men were convicted and sentenced to death in a quick trial without being represented by any attorneys. The case was heard at a time when African Americans were subjected to significant racial discrimination in the legal system, especially in southern states. There were troubling questions about the defendants’ guilt, particularly after one of the alleged victims later admitted that she lied about what happened. Given the circumstances, the Court found the legal proceedings to be fundamentally unfair and declared that defendants facing the death penalty were entitled to representation by attorneys. The Court expanded the right to counsel in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938) by declaring that all defendants facing serious charges in federal court are entitled to be provided with an attorney when they are too poor to afford to hire their own. The Court expanded this rule to cover all state and local courts in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), a well-known case initiated by an uneducated prisoner who sent the Court a handwritten petition complaining about a judge denying his request for an attorney. In Douglas v. California (1963), the Court declared that the government must supply attorneys for poor defendants for their first appeal after a criminal conviction. Subsequently, the Court ruled in Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) that regardless of the seriousness of the charges, criminal defendants are entitled to be represented by an attorney if they face the possibility of serving time in jail. Because people who possess the necessary funds are expected to hire their own attorneys, the Court's Sixth Amendment decisions primarily protected poor defendants who would not receive professional representation if it were not provided by the government. Although the Court expanded opportunities for poor defendants to receive representation during criminal trials, the right to counsel does not apply to civil trials or to cases pursued by prisoners after they have presented their first postconviction appeal.


Trial by Jury

The Court did not interpret the Sixth Amendment to apply the right to trial by jury to all serious cases in both state and federal courts until 1968. In Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), the Court overturned the conviction of an African American defendant whose request for a jury trial had been denied when he was convicted and sentenced to sixty days in jail for allegedly slapping a white man on the arm. After the conviction was overturned, the federal courts prevented Louisiana from prosecuting the man again because he and his attorney had been subjected to discrimination and harassment by local law enforcement officials during the course of his arrest and trial. The right to trial by jury does not, however, apply to all criminal cases. In Lewis v. United States (1996), the Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply to defendants facing petty offense charges with six months or less of imprisonment as the possible punishment for each charge. Therefore, defendants may be denied the opportunity for a jury trial if they face multiple petty offenses that, upon conviction, could produce cumulative sentences in excess of six months through separate sentences for each charge. Such defendants are entitled to a trial, but the trial will be before a judge rather than a jury. In its early decisions, the Court expected that juries would be made up of twelve members who reach unanimous verdicts. However, the Court's interpretation of the Sixth Amendment changed during the 1970's. In Williams v. Florida (1970), the Court determined that juries could have as few as six members in criminal cases. In Apodaca v. Oregon (1972), the Court declared that states could permit defendants to be convicted of crimes by less than unanimous jury verdicts. It ruled that Oregon could convict defendants with 10-2 jury votes and Louisiana with 9-3 votes. The right to trial by jury is not implemented in identical fashion in all courts throughout the country.


Other Trial Rights

The Sixth Amendment's right to a speedy trial prevents the government from holding criminal charges over a defendant's head indefinitely without ever pursuing prosecution. People are entitled to have charges against them resolved in a timely manner. Because the Sixth Amendment provides no guidance on how long the government may take in pursuing prosecution, the Court had to establish guidelines through its Sixth Amendment rulings. The Court clarified the right to a speedy trial in Barker v. Wingo (1972), in which a defendant was forced to wait for more than five years for a trial after he was charged with murder. The delay occurred because the prosecution sought to convict a codefendant first but the codefendant's appeals led to orders for new trials. Therefore, it took several trials to obtain an error-free conviction of the codefendant. When the Court examined the claim that a five-year delay constituted a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, the Court refused to set a firm time limit for speedy trials. Instead, the Court said the individual circumstances of each case must be examined. The Court ruled that judges must determine whether the right to a speedy trial was violated by considering four aspects of the delay: its length, the reason for it, whether the defendant complained about the delay, and whether it harmed the defendant's case, such as through the death or disappearance of a key witness. In this case, the Court found that because the defendant never complained about the delay and his case was not disadvantaged by the delay, the five-year wait for a trial did not violate the defendant's rights despite the fact that the prosecution caused the lengthy delay. Although the Court clarified the factors to be considered in evaluating a speedy trial claim, the exact nature of the right was not clearly defined. The defendant's right to confront adverse witnesses is intended to prevent the government from holding trials without the defendant's knowledge or declaring the defendant guilty without permitting the defendant to challenge the prosecution's evidence. The adversary system underlying the U.S. criminal law process presumes that the best way to reveal the truth at a trial is to permit both sides to present their evidence and arguments to the judge and jury during the same proceeding. The Court struggled with its attempts to provide a clear definition of the extent of the confrontation right. For example, in Coy v. Iowa (1988), the justices were deeply divided when they decided that it was not permissible for the state to place a screen in the courtroom to prevent a defendant from having eye contact with child victims who were presenting testimony about an alleged sexual assault. A few years later in Maryland v. Craig (1990), a narrow majority of justices approved the use of closed-circuit television to permit child victims to present testimony from a different room in the courthouse than the courtroom in which the trial was taking place. Thus the defendant could see the witnesses on television, but the children would not risk being traumatized by coming face to face with the person accused of committing crimes against them. The significant disagreements among the justices about the right to confrontation indicate that the Court may need to clarify the circumstances in which it is permissible to use devices to separate defendants from direct contact with witnesses testifying against them. Traditionally, defendants and witnesses were expected to be face to face in the same courtroom, but growing sensitivity to the psychological trauma experienced by crime victims who must testify in court has led to experiments with screens, closed-circuit television, and other techniques that collide with traditional conceptions of the right to confrontation. Other Sixth Amendment issues to come before the Court include whether excessive pretrial publicity prevents the selection of an unbiased jury and in what circumstances judicial proceedings can be closed to the public. When addressing these issues, Court justices tend to focus on their assessment of factors and circumstances that may interfere with a criminal defendant's opportunity to receive a fair trial.



Further Reading

  • This subject might best be approach through a general reference work on the trial system, such as Christopher E. Smith's Courts and Trials: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003). The development of trial rights is presented in Francis Heller's The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (New York: Greenwood Press, 1951). Many landmark Sixth Amendment cases are presented in case studies examining the people and social contexts surrounding them. Of particular note are Anthony Lewis's Gideon's Trumpet (1964. New York: Vintage, 1989) concerning Gideon v. Wainwright and James Goodman's Stories of Scottsboro (New York: Random House, 1994) concerning Powell v. Alabama. Alfredo Garcia's The Sixth Amendment in Modern American Jurisprudence (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992) presents a discussion of the modern Court's decisions affecting the Sixth Amendment. A detailed presentation of the fine points of law concerning trial rights is available in Christopher Slobogin's. Criminal Procedure: Regulation of Police Investigation: Legal, Historical, Empirical, and Comparative Materials (3d ed. Newark, N.J.: LexisNexis, 2002). For an examination of the Court's decision making after the 1950's and the viewpoints of individual justices concerning the Sixth Amendment, see Thomas R. Hensley, Christopher E. Smith, and Joyce A. Baugh's The Changing Supreme Court: Constitutional Rights and Liberties (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1997). A liberal critique of the Rehnquist Court's decisions affecting the criminal law process is presented in John Decker's Revolution to the Right (New York: Garland, 1992), which argues that the Supreme Court has diminished the protections of the Sixth Amendment and other rights with respect to criminal defendants.