Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and part of the Bill of Rights specifying the trial rights possessed by criminal defendants.
The Sixth Amendment, added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, specifies the rights of defendants
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.
Before the twentieth century, the right to counsel
The Court first expanded the right to counsel in Powell v. Alabama
The Court expanded the right to counsel in Johnson v. Zerbst
The Court did not interpret the Sixth Amendment to apply the right to trial by jury
The right to trial by jury does not, however, apply to all criminal cases. In Lewis v. United States
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
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
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
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.
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.
Barker v. Wingo
Bill of Rights
Counsel, right to
Gideon v. Wainwright
Jury, trial by
Jury composition and size
Pointer v. Texas
Powell v. Alabama
Witnesses, confrontation of