Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions in federal courts. The Supreme Court has ruled that the principal rights guaranteed by this amendment are so fundamental and important that they are also protected in state proceedings by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.


peedy and public trial

peedy trial

Defendants in criminal cases, under the sixth Amendment, have the right to a speedy trial. The U.S. Supreme Court laid down a four-part ad hoc balancing test for determining whether the defendant's speedy trial right has been violated in the case of "Barker v. Wingo":

# Length of Delay: A delay of a year or more from the date on which the speedy trial right "attaches" (the date of arrest or indictment, whichever first occurs) was termed "presumptively prejudicial", but the Court has never explicitly ruled that any absolute time limit applies.
# Reason for the delay: The prosecution may not excessively delay the trial for its own advantage, but a trial may be delayed to secure the presence of an absent witness or other practical considerations.
# Time and manner in which the defendant has asserted his right: If a defendant acquiesces to the delay when it works to his own benefit, he cannot later claim that he has been unduly delayed.
# Degree of prejudice to the defendant which the delay has caused.

If the reviewing court finds that a defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated, then the indictment must be dismissed and/or the conviction overturned. ["Strunk v. United States", ussc|412|434|1973] The Supreme Court has held that, since the delayed trial itself is the state action which violates the defendant's rights, no other remedy would be appropriate. Thus, a reversal or dismissal of a criminal case on speedy trial grounds means that no further prosecution for the alleged offense can take place.

Public trial

The Court has ruled that the right to a public trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is not absolute. In cases where excess publicity would serve to undermine the defendant's right to due process, limitations can be put on public access to the proceedings. ["Sheppard v. Maxwell", ussc|384|333|1966] Trials are often closed at the behest of the government with claims that there is “an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”"Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court", ussc|478|1|1986] The accused may also request a closure of the trial; though, it must be demonstrated that “first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant's fair trial rights.


The right to a jury has always depended on the nature of the offense with which the defendant is charged. Petty offenses—those punishable by imprisonment for not more than six months—are not covered by the jury requirement. ["District of Columbia v. Clawans", ussc|300|617|1937] ["Baldwin v. New York", ussc|399|66|1970] Even where multiple petty offenses are concerned, the total time of imprisonment possibly exceeding six months, the right to a jury trial does not exist. ["Lewis v. United States", ussc|518|322|1996]

Originally, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial indicated a right to “a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law, and includes all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted.” ["Patton v. United States", ussc|281|276|1930] Therefore, it was held that juries had to be composed of twelve persons and that verdicts had to be unanimous, as was customary in England. When, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court extended the right to a trial by jury to defendants in state courts, it re-examined some of the standards. It has been held that the twelve came to be the number of jurors by "historical accident," and that a jury of six would be sufficient ["Williams v. Florida", ussc|399|78|1970] but anything less would deprive the defendant of a right to trial by jury. ["Ballew v. Georgia", ussc|435|223|1978] Although on the basis of history and precedent the Sixth Amendment mandates unanimity in a federal jury trial, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while requiring States to provide jury trials for serious crimes, does not incorporate all the elements of a jury trial within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment and does not require jury unanimity. ["Apodaca v. Oregon", ussc|406|404|1972]

Juries must be, by the terms of the Sixth Amendment, impartial. Firstly, the phrase has been interpreted as requiring individual jurors to be unbiased. At "voir dire," each side may question potential jurors to determine any bias, and challenge them if the same is found; the court determines the validity of these challenges for cause. The defendant may not challenge a conviction, however, on the grounds that a challenge for cause was denied incorrectly if the defendant had the opportunity to use peremptory challenges.

Another factor in determining the impartiality of the jury is the nature of the panel, or venire, from which the jurors are selected. Venires must represent a fair cross-section of the community; the defendant may establish that the requirement was violated by showing that the allegedly excluded group is a "distinctive" one in the community, that the representation of such a group in venires is unreasonable and unfair in regard to the number of persons belonging to such a group and that the under-representation is caused by a systematic exclusion in the selection process. Thus, in "Taylor v. Louisiana", ussc|419|522|1975, the Supreme Court invalidated a state law that exempted women who had not made a declaration of willingness to serve from jury service, while not doing the same for men.

The Constitution originally required that defendants be tried by juries selected from the state in which the crime was committed. The Sixth Amendment extends the rule by requiring trials to occur in districts ascertained by statute. As the Supreme Court found in "Beavers v. Henkel", ussc|194|73|1904, the place where the offense is charged to have occurred determines the trial's location. Where multiple districts are alleged to have been locations of the crime, any of them may be chosen for the trial. In cases of offenses not committed in any state (for example, offenses committed at sea), the place of trial may be determined by Congress.

Notice of accusation

A defendant has, under the Sixth Amendment, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him. Therefore, an indictment must allege all of the ingredients of the crime to such a degree of precision that it would allow the accused to assert double jeopardy if the same charges are brought up in subsequent prosecution. ["United States v. Cruikshank", ussc|92|542|1876] The Supreme Court held in "United States v. Carll", ussc|105|611|1881 that “in an indictment ... it is not sufficient to set forth the offense in the words of the statute, unless those words of themselves fully, directly, and expressly, without any uncertainty or ambiguity, set forth all the elements necessary to constitute the offense intended to be punished.” Vague wording, even if taken directly from a statute, does not suffice. However, the government is not required to hand over written copies of the indictment free of charge. ["United States v. Van Duzee", ussc|140|169|1891]


The defense, under the Sixth Amendment, must have an opportunity to "confront" and cross-examine witnesses. The Confrontation Clause relates to the common law rule preventing the admission of hearsay, that is to say, testimony by one witness as to the statements and observations of a person for the purpose of proving that the statement or observation was accurate. The rationale was that the defendant had no opportunity to challenge the credibility of and cross-examine the person actually making the statements. Certain exceptions to the hearsay rule have been permitted; for instance, admissions by the defendant are admissible, as are dying declarations. ["Kirby v. United States", ussc|174|47|1899 (“It is scarcely necessary to say that…the admission of dying declarations...was well established before the adoption of the constitution, and was not intended to be abrogated.”)] Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has held that the hearsay rule is not exactly the same as the confrontation clause; hearsay may, in some circumstances, be admitted though it is not covered by one of the long-recognized exceptions; for example, prior testimony may sometimes be admitted if the witness is unavailable. ["California v. Green", ussc|399|149|1970] Yet in "Crawford v. Washington", ussc|541|36|2004, the Supreme Court increased the scope of the confrontation clause in trials. Justice Scalia's opinion made any "testimonial" out-of-court statements inadmissible if the accused did not have the opportunity to cross-examine that accuser. "Testimonial" becomes a term of art here, meaning any statements that an objectively reasonable person in the declarant's situation would have deemed likely to be used in court. The most common application of this would come after a declarant made a statement to a police officer, and then that officer testifies about that statement at trial. [ussc|541|36|2004 (“Where testimonial evidence is at issue…Sixth Amendment demands what the common law required: unavailability and a prior opportunity for cross-examination…. [T] he only indicium of reliability sufficient to satisfy constitutional demands is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation.”)]

The defendant must also be permitted to call witnesses in his/her favor. If such witnesses refuse to attend, they may be compelled to do so by the court at the request of the defendant. ["United States v. Cooper", ussc|Source=j|4|341|1800|Dallas|4] In some cases, however, the court may refuse to permit a defense witness to testify. If, for example, a defense lawyer fails to notify the prosecution of the identity of its witnesses in order to gain a tactical advantage, the witnesses whose identities were undisclosed may be precluded from testifying. ["Taylor v. Illinois", ussc|484|400|1988]

The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses also applies to physical evidence; the prosecution must present physical evidence to the jury, providing the defense ample opportunity to cross-examine its validity and meaning. Prosecution generally may not refer to evidence without first presenting it.


The Sixth Amendment guarantees the Right to counsel of defendants to procure the assistance of counsel. The defendant has the right to not only be heard through such attorneys as he pleases but furthermore, the defendant may represent himself. The court may, however, deny the defendant such a right when it is deemed that the defendant is incompetent to waive the right to counsel.

Originally, the clause was not interpreted as requiring the state to appoint counsel where the defendant could not afford to do so. The Supreme Court began to expand the interpretation of the clause in "Powell v. Alabama", ussc|287|45|1932, in which it held, “in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him.” In "Johnson v. Zerbst", ussc|304|458|1938, the Supreme Court ruled that in all federal cases, counsel would have to be appointed for defendants who were too poor to hire their own. When deciding "Betts v. Brady", ussc|316|455|1942, the Court declined to extend this requirement to the state courts under the Fourteenth Amendment unless the defendant demonstrated "special circumstances" requiring the assistance of counsel.

In 1960, the Court extended the rule that applied in federal courts to state courts. It held in "Hamilton v. Alabama", ussc|368|52|1961 that counsel had to be provided at no expense to defendants in capital cases when they so requested, even if there was no "ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like." "Gideon v. Wainwright", ussc|372|335|1963 explicitly overruled "Betts v. Brady", finding counsel must be provided to indigent defendants in all felony cases, whether capital or otherwise. "Argersinger v. Hamlin", ussc|407|25|1972 and "Scott v. Illinois", ussc|440|367|1979 expanded the right further, guaranteeing counsel in any charge resulting in a sentence of actual imprisonment.

As stated in "Brewer v. Williams", ussc|430|387|1977, the rights granted by Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments “mean at least that a person is entitled to the help of a lawyer at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated against him, whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment.” 430 U.S. at 398. "Brewer" goes on to conclude that once adversary proceeding have begun against a defendant, he has a right to legal representation when the government interrogates him 430 U.S. at 401, citing "Massiah v. United States", ussc|377|201|1964 and that when a defendant is arrested, “arraigned on [an arrest] warrant before a judge,” and “committed by the court to confinement,” “ [t] here can be no doubt . that judicial proceedings ha [ve] been initiated.”


More recently, the Supreme Court has expounded the right to represent yourself, holding in "Faretta v. California", ussc|422|806|1975 the power to choose or waive counsel lies with the accused, and the state can not intrude, though it later held in "Godinez v. Moran", ussc|509|389|1993 that the state could deny the waiver if it believed the accused less than fully competent to adequately proceed without counsel. The Supreme Court also held in "Bounds v. Smith", ussc|430|817|1977 that the constitutional right of "meaningful access to the courts" can be satisfied by counsel "or" access to legal materials. This holding was interpreted by most circuits to mean a "pro se" defendant does not have a constitutional right to access a prison law library in order to research his defense.

The circuit courts have narrowed the right to exclude appeal procedures as in "Martinez v. California Court of Appeals" 528 U.S. 152, 163 (2000), and again by reference in "US v. Moussaoui" (4th Cir. 2003) (No. 03-4162); however, this restriction is new, inconsistent with precedent, and has yet to be tested in the Supreme Court.

Court cases regarding the Sixth Amendment

*"Rothgery v. Gillespie County"
*"Taylor v. Louisiana"
*"Beavers v. Henkel"
*"United States v. Carll"
*"Crawford v. Washington"
*"Powell v. Alabama"
*"Johnson v. Zerbst"
*"Betts v. Brady"
*"Hamilton v. Alabama"
*"Gideon v. Wainwright"
*"Massiah v. United States"
*"Escobedo v. Illinois"
*"Fellers v. United States"
*"Ford v. Wainwright"
*"Scott v. Illinois"
*"Miranda v. Arizona"
*"Davis v. Washington"
*"Roe V. Wade"
*"Riggins v. Nevada"
*"United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez"


External links

* [ Kilman, Johnny and George Costello (Eds). (2000). "The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation."]
* [ CRS Annotated Constitution: Sixth Amendment]
* [ Chin, Gabriel and Scott Wells. (1998). "Can A Reasonable Doubt have an Unreasonable Price? Limitations on Attorneys Fees in Criminal Cases, 41 Boston College Law Review 1."]

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