The Sixth Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning

The Rights of Criminal Defendants

Serious, attentive jury listening in legal trial courtroom
Serious jury listening in legal trial courtroom. Hero Images / Getty Images

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures certain rights of individuals facing prosecution for criminal acts. While it is previously mentioned in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, the Sixth Amendment is popularly recognized as the source of the right to a timely public trial by jury.

As one of the original 12 amendments proposed in the Bill of Rights, the Sixth Amendment was submitted to the then 13 states for ratification on September 5, 1789, and approved by the required nine states on December 15, 1791.

The full text of the Sixth Amendment states:

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.

Specific rights of criminal defendants ensured by the Sixth Amendment include:

  • The right to a public trial held without unnecessary delay. Often referred to as a “speedy trial.”
  • The right to be represented by a lawyer if desired.
  • The right to be tried by an impartial jury.
  • The right of the accused to obtain and present witnesses to appear on their behalf.
  • The right of the accused to “confront,” or question witnesses against them.
  • The right of the accused to be informed of the identity of their accusers and the nature of the charges and evidence to be used against them.

Similar to other constitutionally-ensured rights related to the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court has ruled that the protections of the Sixth Amendment apply in all states under the principle of “due process of law” established by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legal challenges to the provisions of the Sixth Amendment occur most often in cases involving the fair selection of jurors, and the need to protect the identity of witnesses, like victims of sex crimes and persons in danger of possible retaliation as a result of their testimony.

The Courts Interpret the Sixth Amendment

While the mere 81 words of the Sixth Amendment establish the basic rights of persons facing prosecution for criminal acts, sweeping changes in society since 1791 have forced the federal courts to consider and define exactly how some of those most visible basic rights should be applied today.

Right to a Speedy Trial

Exactly what does “speedy” mean? In the 1972 case of Barker v. Wingo, the Supreme Court established four factors for deciding whether a defendant's speedy trial right had been violated.

  • Length of the delay: A delay of one year or longer from the date of the defendant’s arrest or indictment, whichever happens first, was termed to be “presumptively prejudicial,” However, the Court did not establish one-year as an absolute time limit
  • Cause of the delay: While trials may not be excessively delayed solely to disadvantage the defendant, they may be delayed in order to secure the presence of absent or reluctant witnesses or for other practical considerations, such as change of trial location, or “venue.”
  • Did the defendant agree to the delay? Defendants who agree to delays that work in their benefit may not later claim that the delay had violated their rights.
  • The degree to which the delay may have prejudiced the court against the defendant.

One year later, in the 1973 case of Strunk v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that when an appeals court finds that a defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated, the indictment must be dismissed and/or the conviction overturned.

Right to Trial by Jury

In the United States, the right to be tried by a jury has always depended on the seriousness of the criminal act involved. In “petty” offenses — those punishable by no more than six months in jail — right to a jury trial does apply. Instead, decisions can be rendered and punishments assessed directly by judges. For example, most cases heard in municipal courts, such as traffic violations and shoplifting are decided solely by the judge. Even in cases of multiple petty offenses by the same defendant, for which the total time in jail might exceeding six months, the absolute right to a jury trial does not exist.

In addition, minors are typically tried in juvenile courts, in which defendants may be given reduced sentences, but forfeit their right to a jury trial.

Right to a Public Trial

The right to a public trial is not absolute. In the 1966 case of Sheppard v. Maxwell, involving the murder of the wife of Dr. Sam Sheppard, a popular high-profile neurosurgeon, the Supreme Court held that public access to trials can be restricted if, in the opinion of the trial judge,excess publicity might harm the defendant's right to a fair trial.

Right to an Impartial Jury

The courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of impartiality to mean that individual jurors must be able to act without being influenced by personal bias. During the jury selection process, lawyers for both sides are allowed to question potential jurors to determine whether they harbor any bias for or against the defendant. If such bias is suspected, the lawyer may challenge the juror’s qualification to serve. Should the trial judge determine the challenge to be valid, the potential juror will be dismissed.

In the 2017 case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires criminal courts to investigate all claims by defendants that their jury's guilty verdict was based on racial bias. In order for a guilty verdict to be overturned, the defendant must prove that the racial bias “was a significant motivating factor in the juror's vote to convict.”

Right to Proper Trial Venue

Through a right known in legal language as “vicinage,” the Sixth Amendment requires that criminal defendants be tried by jurors chosen from legally determined judicial districts. Over time, the courts have interpreted this to mean that selected jurors must reside in the same state in which the crime was committed and charges were filed. In the 1904 case of Beavers v. Henkel, the Supreme Court ruled that the location where the alleged crime took place determines the location of the trial. In cases where the crime may have occurred in multiple states or judicial districts, the trial may be held in any of them. In rare cases of crimes that take place outside the United States, like crimes at sea, the U.S. Congress may set the location of the trial.

Factors Driving the Sixth Amendment

As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention sat down to craft the Constitution in the spring of 1787, the U.S. criminal justice system was best described as a disorganized “do-it-yourself” affair. Without professional police forces, ordinary untrained citizens served in loosely defined roles as sheriffs, constables, or night watchmen.

It was almost always up to victims themselves to charge and prosecute criminal offenders. Lacking an organized government prosecutorial process, trials often devolved into shouting matches, with both victims and defendants representing themselves. As a result, trials involving even the most serious crimes lasted only minutes or hours instead of days or weeks.

Juries of the day were made up of twelve ordinary citizens — typically all men — who often knew the victim, defendant, or both, as well as the details of the crime involved. In many cases, most of the jurors had already formed opinions of guilt or innocence and were unlikely to be swayed by evidence or testimony.

While they were informed of which crimes were punishable by the death penalty, jurors received few if any instructions from judges. Jurors were allowed and even urged to directly question witnesses and to publically debate the defendant’s guilt or innocence in open court.

It was in this chaotic scenario that the framers of the Sixth Amendment sought to ensure that the processes of the American criminal justice system were conducted impartially and in the best interest of the community, while also protecting the rights of both the accused and victims.

Sixth Amendment Key Takeaways

  • The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of the original articles of the Bill of Right and was ratified on December 15, 1791.
  • The Sixth Amendment protects the rights of persons facing prosecution for criminal acts.
  • Also known as the “Speedy Trial Clause,” the Sixth Amendment establishes the rights of defendants to be given a fair and speedy public trial before a jury, to have a lawyer, to be informed of the charges against them, and to question witnesses against them.
  • The courts continue to interpret the Sixth Amendment as needed to respond to developing social issues such as racial discrimination.
  • The Sixth Amendment applies in all states under the principle of “due process of law” established by the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The Sixth Amendment was created to correct the inequities of the disorganized, chaotic criminal justice system prevailing at the time.