6th Amendment – what does it mean?

The First 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.  There is often discussion and debate about what these amendments mean. Without bringing a political view and without giving legal advice, below is the text of the 4th Amendment and some commentary on it.

Amendment VI: 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 defence.”

This amendment relates only to criminal law cases, and has been debated shortly after it was written up to modern day and will continue to be discussed. There are a few parts of this amendment that should be looked at:

  1. Right to a Speedy Trial – what does “speedy” mean. Courts have not imposed a strict timeline for every case, but there have been rulings on what this should look like and when it is abused. Oyez by Cornell Law and Justia have a list of some of them.
  2. Impartial Jury – this is not the same thing as a jury of your peers, as is so often misquoted.
  3. The jury should be of the State and district wherein the crime was committed – there are some exceptions to this, especially when if staying in the district would be hard to get an impartial jury. The Boston Marathon Bomber is an example of requesting a change of venue because of this.
  4. The accused shall be informed of the nature and case of the accusation – this is often done through an arrest warrant. Cornell Law School has an easy to explain definition of an arrest warrant. Their focus is mainly on the 4th Amendment, however the warrant tells the person being arrested what they are being charged with.
  5. The accused shall be able to confront witnesses against him/her – this is come under scrutiny in the past few years when it comes to children who would have to testify in court against the person who hurt them or their family. Commentary of this from a 2014 article by Thomas D. Lyon and Julia A. Dente explain some of the after effects of the Supreme Court ruling in Crawford v. Washington.
  6. The accused shall be able to obtain witnesses for their defense – this allows for the accused to defend themselves and have witnesses for their defense.
  7. The accused shall be able to have the Assistance of Counsel – what is key to this part is that the accused SHALL be able to have the assistance, it is not mandatory that the accused must have a counselor to help them.  While there are defense attorneys that are assigned cases for defendants that cannot afford to hire counsel, the accused can request to represent himself or herself.  Sometimes when this is done the judge can still assign an attorney to provide counsel, because of the seriousness of the charges. Charles Manson and Ted Bundy are examples of this.

Each one of these elements can be a post that dives deeper into how the 6th Amendment is still being defined and continues to adjust as technology develops and criminal law develops.

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