The People's Court: Understanding the 6th Amendment

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The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew a thing or two about government abuse through the legal system. They wrote the Constitution with two aims: (1.) to make sure it established our system of government and (2.) to make sure each citizen was protected from that same government. These protections are guaranteed through the Bill of Rights. Protection from the legal system is granted through the 6th Amendment, which we know as the right to a speedy trial and an impartial jury.

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. Many times, peasant trials were presided over by lords and landowners. It was the equivalent of being tried by your 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.

So exactly what are these unique 6th Amendment rights? The text of the 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 defense.

The first protection is the right to a speedy and public trial. While the definition of "speedy" depends on state statutes and court dockets, you will always be notified of a court date. The words "public trial" protect you from being tried in secret and mean the public has access to the proceedings. With very few exceptions, anyone can attend a trial. You also have the right to an "impartial jury," meaning the jury will be composed of people with no knowledge of the case or favoritism towards either party.

Though the right to notification appears in the middle of the text, it is normally the first step in the judicial process. It means you have the right to be informed of the nature and cause of any accusation against you. If someone files suit, they must serve you with a complaint. If you are accused of a crime, you must be informed of both the charges and your rights when you are arrested or confronted by police.

The next parts of the Sixth Amendment deal with witnesses. First of all, defendants have the right to obtain subpoenas to call forth witnesses, documents and evidence that will help their case. The history of this part of the amendment is disputed; however, many believe it came from the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. He was convicted based on the statement of an alleged co-conspirator who never appeared in court and is believed not to have existed. To put it simply, a subpoena is a protection against false accusations and a staged witness selection process.

Secondly, defendants have the right to be confronted by or to confront any witnesses. In court, this confrontation happens through cross-examination. Out of court, this happens through affidavits and depositions.

The Amendment's final clause guarantees the accused person the right to assistance of counsel. Legal representation was once a privilege only available to the rich. The poor were often left to their own devices in English courts. While defendants in America can choose to represent themselves, the right to counsel gives you the right to free legal help. In criminal trials, indigent defendants are assigned legal counsel. Around the country, community legal services, legal aid societies and other groups help the poor deal with civil issues.

No matter how well our founding fathers' executed on their plan, our judicial system is not perfect. We all know injustice and frustration are everyday legal occurrences. Even so, the framers made vast improvements for everyday citizens through the 6th Amendment to make sure American courts really are the people's courts.