The Sixth Amendment offers protection for citizens in judicial proceedings. Here’s the 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.
Source material and recommended reading: 6th Amendment
This issue arises on occasion when I discuss our red light camera law here in Floirda. A commonly-held belief is you have a right to confront witnesses against you in court. As with the Fifth Amendment I looked at last week, the Sixth also limits protection to only criminal cases, so non-criminal traffic violations are not specifically covered. Why were and are witnesses and court proceedings so important so as to warrant an amendment to the Constitution? Being a huge fan of the old TV Show Lawman, I’ll share a clip that deals with this subject. A town in 1882 Wyoming had a dangerous suspect in custody. The entire town had been threatened by his relatives, so the trial had been moved to another town. The town Marshal there, Dan Troop, was unable to find enough people to serve on a jury due to more threats. He explains who has the true power of the law, and citizen duty for juries:
Our founders had experienced firsthand unequal treatment from the King of England. One could use the analogy that they had an abusive parent, and were not going to be that way when they had their own children. Colonists had seen the King would punish people for any number of things- perhaps something just as simple as dissension with the government (in that case the King) or because they did not follow the official established religion (see the First Amendment for more on that topic).
Like others, the Sixth Amendment has several clauses within it, seven in total.
The first is the speedy trial clause. There are several reasons behind it. It’s not good for someone that may be innocent to be incarcerated for an excessive amount of time. Having a long delay is never good when it comes to evidence and witnesses. In extreme delays, a witness could die before a case came to trial. States have adopted laws that require formal charges to be filed (although an arrest generally “starts the clock” for speedy trail purposes). Florida’s Constitution in Article 1 Section 16 contains nearly identical language to the Sixth Amendment. Florida Statute 918.015 also requires a speedy trial, and allows the Florida Supreme Court to establish this by rule.
Second is the public trial clause. One thing Americans should fear is a secret judicial process. If trials were not public, all sorts of bad things could happen to people and no one would ever know. A citizen could be arrested and charged with treason, convicted, and executed and there would be no public record with which to ensure the process was fair to the accused. Having a secret trial would not put any pressure on anyone to tell the truth. Public trials can serve to sway public opinion greatly, one notable example is OJ Simpson in California. Usually, the result is far less dramatic, and the people perceiving a deficiency take action either by electing new officials or changing a law, or both. There are secondary benefits of this as well, a public trial may cause an unknown victim or witness to the crime to come forward. Again, this had a basis in England, and was something our founders made certain would not be practiced in American courts.
Third is the right to a jury clause. The idea here was to ensure people were tried by ordinary citizens- their peers, and not just by a Judge, who could be corrupt. Our founders saw this as a danger along with secret trials and based this amendment on what they had seen. For quite a while in America, juries were composed of 12 people. After a Supreme Court decision, the number for state trials was reduced to a minimum of 6 people, but federal trials still require 12. The Supreme Court also changed the verdict requirement for state courts from being unanimous to allowing 9 or more jurors to convict. This did not apply to federal courts. This is another facet of incorporation of the Bill of Rights whereby federal courts set rules for state courts- and in this case ironically do not apply them to their own courts. It’s worth noting that all of these clauses have been incorporated against the states, this is one that is easily understandable and demonstrates a clear conflict.
The fourth is the arraignment clause. Without this, you would not know the exact nature of the charges filed against you. At an arraignment, these charges are formally given to the defendant so they and/or their counsel will know what they are facing and can prepare a defense. If this did not exist, courts could punish people via prison sentences without them knowing what they were accused of doing wrong. Our founders had observed religious persecution in England as one example of why this clause was needed.
The fifth is the confrontation clause, this is the one people erroneously try to apply in traffic court. What this clause allows is for defendants to confront- or have in court- the witnesses against them. Our founders believed people were more likely to tell the truth if they were in a court, and that it was a good idea to allow a jury to assess the testimony firsthand. One example of what had happened in England was Sir Walter Raleigh. He was convicted and executed on testimony from a witness that was never in court. This concept is very valid. I’ll add for the traffic court cases, when you allow a private company making millions of dollars to have access to evidence before the police, as is the case with red light cameras, and then do not compel them to be in court to validate their evidence, this allows a corrupt scheme to take place. There are modern exceptions to this, such as a case where a witness had given sworn testimony and died or was otherwise unavailable for trial.
The sixth is the compulsory process clause. What this means is that you can call witnesses to court in your defense, and the court can use its power to get them there. Our founders had seen English courts bar people from calling witnesses in treason and felony cases. Once compelled, a witness must testify, but they always retain their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The final clause is the right to counsel clause. Most people can easily understand that the accused must be able to have legal counsel. The law has always been a difficult area to navigate, so counselors, or attorneys, were trained to assist in ensuring people accused of a crime were properly defended. A modern interpretation was that the court could appoint an attorney if the defendant could not afford one. This is where the public defender comes into play in our justice system.
The Sixth Amendment contains very many essential elements for protection from a corrupt government. Do you see our modern system in areas such as “national security” going towards these protections or away from them? Others have observed that to know where you are going, it is always good to see where you have been.