The 6th Amendment – Constitution Bootcamp: Bill of Rights Series
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The 6th Amendment – Constitution Bootcamp: Bill of Rights Series

August 28, 2019


The sixth amendment of the Bill of
Rights reads… 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 (I’m Elmer Fudd now!) the crime shall have been committed… okay… 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 defense. I
think it’s a little bit more intelligible if I just break it down to
the rights that are inherent in the sixth amendment. There are seven of them
at least inherent in the sixth amendment they are: The right to a speedy trial. The
right to a public trial. The right to be judged by an impartial jury. The right to
be notified of the nature and circumstances of the alleged crime. The
right to confront witnesses who will testify against the accused. The right to
find witnesses who will speak in favor of the accused. The right to have a
lawyer. Why do we have the sixth amendment? This is a good short paragraph
by LegalZoom.com. “At the time of the Constitution, English courts were
controlled by the king. That means when and how a person was tried was up to the
king or someone loyal to the king. Juries were never impartial. It was the
equivalent of being tried by their accuser. If you were a peasant going to trial in
the king’s court, you might as well pack your bags for jail. The framers of the
Constitution wanted to make sure the abuses people suffered in the English
courts never happened here.” Kudos to the founders. When the sixth amendment was
ratified it applied to federal courts not state courts and that caused some
ripples that we’ll run into that shortly, and so it
remained for a long time but it’s ConstitutionCenter.org points
out around the mid 20th century the Supreme Court ruled that virtually every
aspect of the sixth amendment applies not only to federal but also to State
prosecutions. This vastly expanded the amendment’s reached because most criminal
prosecutions occur at the State courts. Time doesn’t permit comments on all seven of
this amendment’s rights. I would just comment on the right to a
speedy trial and the right to have a lawyer. Again from ConstitutionCenter.org, the court (and that would be the Supreme Court of course) has held that
the failure to begin a trial in a timely manner requires dismissing the
prosecution entirely. That sounds pretty good, but the article continues… perhaps
because that remedy is drastic the court has interpreted the term “speedy” quite
leniently. Delays of several years are sometimes permissible (so much for a speedy
trial) the right to have a lawyer I think this is an interesting little story
that’s why I included it so… in 1961 a break-in occurred at a bar called Bay
Harbor Pool in Panama City Florida. One witness reported that Clarence Earl
Gideon had left the pool room around 5:30 a.m. that morning
holding a wine bottle and pockets loaded with coins and he entered a cab. The
information was enough for the police to arrest Gideon. Gideon could not
afford a lawyer. He asked the court to appoint him counsel. The court refused,
stating that court-appointed lawyers were reserved for capital offenses.
Gideon was left to defend himself without the aid of a lawyer.
While Gideon maintained his innocence throughout, the jury
returned a guilty verdict and sentenced him to five years in state prison the
maximum sentence. Inmate Gideon began using his time in the prison library to
study the American legal system. He came to believe that the trial judge had
breached his constitutional right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment that
was applicable to the state of Florida through the Due Process Clause of the
Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Armed with his newly
acquired knowledge Gideon penned a five page handwritten
petition to the court of the United States Supreme Court that the United
States. The Supreme Court responded agreeing to hear the prisoners case. That
case was argued On January 15, 1963. His lawyer argued that someone like Gideon
with no training in law (excuse me) had no was no match against a trained trial
lawyer. Accordingly there was no way to have a fair trial without legal
representation. On march 18, 1963. the Supreme Court
handed down a nine to zero verdict in Gideon’s favor. Getting got a new
trial and after an hour of deliberation the jury acquitted
Gideon. He had spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. So that’s why we
have today, even in local courts, public defenders if the accused wants one. Gideon
reflects the landmark ruling. Gideon clarified that the right to the assistance
of counsel was a fundamental right of the individual, essential for a fair
trial. This major procedural safeguard is a profound strength of our democracy (I
would have used the term Republic) based on the premise that no one should be
charged by the state with the crime and then forced to confront the accusers in
court without the protection of a lawyer. I think that’s quite enough about the
sixth amendment, yeah, so I’m done and I thank you for this opportunity and may
God continue to bless this great country of ours. Thank you very much.

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