U.S. Constitution: Sixth Amendment

A fair trial is a hallmark of a civilized society. It publicly demonstrates the equal protection and application of the law. It educates the public about the law and legitimizes the criminal justice system. It also prevents secret trials, where corruption could sneak into the justice system.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses the rights of the accused. These rights include the following:

This article summarizes the Sixth Amendment's rights of the accused. There are annotations at the end of the article which provide more context to the rights.

For more information, browse FindLaw's Constitution of the United States section. And, of course, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney if you're facing criminal charges.

Sixth Amendment Text

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.

Trial Rights

The Sixth Amendment makes several guarantees regarding a criminal defendant's trial. As it states, it provides for a right to a speedy and public trial, and an impartial jury of the defendant's peers shall decide the case.

While it does not explicitly state that it provides for a fair trial, the combination of Sixth Amendment guarantees provides such a right. This article explains these rights in more detail below.

Note that the Sixth Amendment rights only apply to criminal cases. They do not apply to civil cases. Additionally, the Sixth Amendment right applies to the states via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, these rights apply in both state and federal courts.

The right to a public trial helps ensure a criminal defendant receives a fair trial. The Sixth Amendment Right to a Public Trial annotation summarizes the right and its rationale. It also covers its history, how Supreme Court decisions have defined the speedy and public trial, and what happens when the government violates the right.

Right to a Jury Trial

Central to the criminal justice system is the idea that a criminal defendant has a right to a fair trial. The combination of several amendments in the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to a fair trial.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to a trial by jury. It provides the constitutional right to a jury of the defendant's peers. This means the jury is comprised of a cross-section of the community in the county where the trial occurs.

Potential jurors go through a jury selection process before the trial begins. The process ensures the jurors can fairly consider the evidence and arguments at trial. Parties may use peremptory challenges to keep some potential jurors out of the jury trial.

The jury serves an important and ancient role in criminal trials. They are the trier of fact and decide whether to convict or acquit the defendant. The Sixth Amendment Right to a Trial By Jury annotation summarizes the jury's role in the trial. Additionally, it describes the history of jury trials, as opposed to trial by combat.

Not every criminal charge provides the right to a jury trial. For more information about when the right applies, browse When the Right to a Jury Trial Applies. The annotation summarizes when the right does and does not apply to a criminal defendant. In addition, it discusses Supreme Court cases that shaped the right to a jury trial.

Given the significance of the jury in criminal law, it is important to understand how jurors are selected. The Jury Selection and Bias Under the Sixth Amendment annotation describes jury selection. It also describes the rationale behind an impartial jury and its importance in the criminal justice system.

Right to a Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to a speedy trial. A speedy trial is held within a reasonable time and without undue delay. This protects the defendant's right against the government indefinitely holding them in jail or prison.

The right to a speedy trial is an enumerated right. It prevents the government from incarcerating a person for an unreasonable amount of time before their trial. The Sixth Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial annotation describes this right in detail. It also covers how the Supreme Court has interpreted the right, summarizes when the right to a speedy trial applies, and clarifies what “speedy" means. It also details its history and rationale.

Right of Confrontation

A criminal defendant has the right to confront the prosecution's witnesses who testify against them. This is known as the confrontation clause. It allows defendants the ability to cross-examine the government's witnesses. The right also prevents the government from introducing out-of-court statements (hearsay) if the witness is unavailable for the trial. However, there are some exceptions to the hearsay rule.

Criminal defendants have the right to be notified of the nature of the charges against them. They also have the right to confront witnesses brought against them. The Notice and Confrontation of Witnesses Under the Sixth Amendment annotation describes the history and rationale of these rights. It also covers important Supreme Court cases that clarify these rights and their exceptions.

Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment's text is just one sentence but has generated much case law in the state and federal courts. Some of the cases involving the Sixth Amendment have significantly expanded its reach. For instance, the right to legal counsel has been expanded to cover the following:

  • The interrogation phase of a criminal investigation
  • The trial itself
  • Sentencing
  • At least an initial appeal of any conviction

Perhaps the most well-known U.S. Supreme Court case considering the rights conferred under the Sixth Amendment is Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). That case ruled that the right to counsel guaranteed under the federal Constitution also applies to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. The right to counsel applies to both felonies and misdemeanors.

The petitioner in that case, Clarence Earl Gideon, was charged with felony breaking and entering in Florida. He could not afford a defense attorney, so he asked the judge to appoint an attorney on his behalf. At the time, Florida only offered court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants in capital cases. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, setting a precedent among all state courts. Defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel in all criminal cases in which jail or prison is a possibility.

The Sixth Amendment Right to an Attorney annotation details the right to legal counsel. It focuses on summarizing the development of the right to counsel. For example, indigent defendants did not have an absolute right to an attorney until 1938. The When the Right to an Attorney Applies annotation also provides information about the right to an attorney. A criminal defendant is not guaranteed the right to an attorney in some judicial proceedings, but not often.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Not only do defendants have a right to an attorney, they also have the right to a competent attorney. Simply having an attorney is not enough; the attorney must zealously advocate for their client. 

The Sixth Amendment Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel annotation describes this right. It specifically addresses the duties an attorney owes to their client and what happens if the attorney breaches these duties. It describes the absolute right to counsel at trial and provides examples of cases where the effective assistance of the attorney was at issue.

Protect Your Sixth Amendment Rights by Contacting an Attorney

If you're facing criminal charges, it's important to understand all of your rights. Often, you must raise your right during the process to avoid accidentally waiving it. To avoid this outcome and ensure your rights are fully protected, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your case.

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