6th Amendment

The 6th Amendment is the amendment to the Constitution that gives everyone the right to a speedy and public trial. For example, the 6th Amendment provides that a person will not have to undergo a drawn-out process that can both prolong his anxiety and potentially impair his ability to defend himself. The 6th Amendment also requires all criminal trials be public so as to ensure fairness to the defendant and to discourage perjury, among other things. To explore this concept, consider the following 6th Amendment definition.

Definition of 6th Amendment

Noun

  1. The amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees all citizens the right to a fair and speedy criminal trial.

Origin

1791

Right to Speedy Trial

The right to a speedy trial is an important right granted to American citizens under the U.S. Constitution. When an individual receives with a speedy trial, this means that he does not have to suffer indefinitely, waiting for his trial to begin. This is especially true for a defendant who is awaiting trial while in prison. A speedy trial ensures that the court will hear the matter in a timely fashion so that the defendant can know his fate sooner, rather than later.

The right to a speedy trial also works to not cause undue suffering to the defendant, who might otherwise be subject to increasingly worsening anxiety as he awaited a delayed trial date. Additionally, the longer the matter drags on, the less likely a defendant might be able to defend himself accordingly. For example, the 6th Amendment ensures that a defendant will not be paying attorney’s fees for, say, 5 years and must eventually fire the attorney and represent himself because he can no longer afford the legal fees. This could cause an otherwise preventable harm to the defendant.

How this Right is Enforced

Once an individual asserts his right to a speedy trial, then the prosecution has, on average, a few months within which to set a trial date. If it is determined that there was a violation to a person’s right to a speedy trial, then the court must dismiss the case with prejudice. This means that the prosecution has forfeited its change to ever charge that individual with the same crime again.

Right to Public Trial

The right to a public trial is just as important as the right to a speedy trial. However, there are exceptions to the rule in that some judges close trials to the public for one reason or another. The judge will evaluate each individual case to determine whether publicizing the trial would be potentially harmful to the public interest. For example, in cases involving rape, juveniles, or organized crime (for security reasons), the judge may decide to keep proceedings closed from public viewing. The judge must be sure, though, before making such a ruling that he might not otherwise be reversed on appeal for a potential constitutional violation.

There are several reasons why a person’s right to public trial is so important:

  • Fair Trial – A public trial allows the general public to witness fair treatment of the defendant.
  • Perjury – Witnesses may be less likely to lie if they know that both the members of the court and their own peers are watching them.
  • Witnesses – One of the earliest reasons for publicizing a trial is that the more people who know about it, the more likely any potential witnesses will come forward.
  • Accountability – This point is two-fold. First, those who elect judges can see them at work and decide if they want to elect them again. Second, the idea is that the judge, jury, and courtroom staff will be more mindful of their actions if they know they have an audience.

Impartial Jury

The Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to have their cases heard by an impartial jury. An impartial jury is a collection of people who hears a case with no prejudice and who will provide the defendant with a fair verdict upon the conclusion of his trial. Therefore, judges will instruct juries to refrain from reading newspapers or watching the news while acting as a member of the jury. The idea is that anything they read or hear about the case might ultimately sway their verdict in a different direction than if they were to solely listen to the facts offered at trial.

Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment provides that anyone facing a criminal charge has the right to counsel. This means that every American citizen – and even those non-citizens charged with crime here in the U.S. – have the right to have an attorney represent them during their criminal trial. When the police read a person his rights upon arresting him, they tell the individual, as part of the procedure: “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” This is the amendment to the Constitution that guarantees that right.

The ways in which an attorney can help a defendant vary based on each individual case. However, the right to counsel ensures that a defendant is entitled to the following services from an attorney that remain the same across the board. For instance, the attorney should:

  • Explain the defendant’s rights to him, as well as inform his client of what he should expect during each phase of the process.
  • Negotiate a plea bargain on the defendant’s behalf.
  • Ensure that no one is violating his client’s constitutional rights, either through law enforcement or during court proceedings.
  • Work on various aspects of the case to ease the defendant’s burden, such as investigating facts, gathering evidence, and examining witnesses.

6th Amendment Example Involving a Pro Se Litigant

An example of the 6th Amendment being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court can be found in the matter of Gideon v. Wainwright, which was heard by the Court in 1963. In this case, a pool room in Panama City, Florida was burgled in June of 1961. Police arrested Clarence Earl Gideon and charged him for the felony burglary, however he was unable to afford an attorney and so requested one be appointed to him.

The Court denied Gideon’s request inasmuch as Florida law dictated that a court could only appoint a lawyer in murder cases wherein the death penalty was a possible sentence. The law did not consider regular felonies to be serious enough to warrant such an appointment. As a result, Gideon acted as his own attorney, and the jury ultimately convicted him.

Gideon used his time in prison to research his right to trial counsel. He filed appeals from prison, but the courts denied his appeals. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the denial of his right to an attorney was unconstitutional inasmuch as it was a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The Court agreed to hear his case and, to ensure that Gideon would be properly represented, the Court appointed future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as his counsel.

Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor. Said the Court, in its Decision:

“Not only [prior] precedents, but also reason and reflection, require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses.

That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Pro Se Litigant – A party to a legal action acting without legal counsel.
  • Prosecution – The lawyer who argues that a person accused of a crime is guilty of committing that crime.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.

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