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The Sixth Amendment - Preserving Liberty
The founding fathers believed that liberty and a balance of power were essential to a fair democracy. At its most basic form, liberty can be interpreted as a person’s physical freedom, which can be denied by an unfair trial. Thus the Sixth Amendment, which grants a fair trial to all citizens by creating a balance of power between the prosecution and the defense, was integral to the preservation of personal liberty and balance of power that the founding fathers sought to establish. Its history draws from improvements upon the mistakes of England and Europe, as well as certain rights held to be fundamental to due process. It is significant because it protects citizens’ freedom by establishing that they have certain rights and balances the power of the prosecution against these rights. The Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment as stating that counsel must be provided to defendants even if they cannot afford it, which was noteworthy because the right to counsel is perhaps the most important part of the amendment.
The Sixth Amendment can be broken down into its constituent clauses to better grasp its diverse history and how significant it is as a whole. The first clause of the amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial, which, according to the Congressional Research Service’s Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis, and Interpretation, derives from England’s Magna Carta (United States 1494-5). It has several purposes, as defined in Revolutionary War and Beyond’s “The 6th Amendment:” it ensures that witnesses retain clear memories and remain available to testify, to preserve the defendant’s ability to provide a defense, and prevents the defendant from suffering in jail for extended periods of time. If this right were not guaranteed, innocent civilians could be wrongly convicted due to an erosion of witness testimony, or could wait for years in jail before even being determined guilty. Thus, I think the founding fathers, by ensuring the right to a speedy trial, were preventing the legal system from punishing citizens before guilt has been determined. They also balanced the power of the prosecution against the rights of citizens by guaranteeing that a trial will indeed take place, and that the defense will have a chance to put forth its argument with its fullest strength.
The public trial clause originates from a distrust of secret trials established through the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition, England, and the French monarchy (United States 1498). Citizens could not defend themselves from their accusers, and torture, wrongful execution, and unjust imprisonment were not uncommon (“The 6th Amendment”). A public trial is thus very important because it protects citizens from use of the courts as a tool of persecution. Since secret trials have historically been coupled with the denial of the defendant’s rights, I think the guarantee of a public trial was the first step toward ensuring that all the defendant’s other rights would be respected. Therefore, I think the founding fathers included the public trial clause to help prevent the abuse of power on the part of the prosecution.
Similarly, the right to a trial by jury serves to protect citizens from corruption among judges who would otherwise wield total power over the conviction (“The 6th Amendment”). Although this corruption is less common today, the clause requires that a group of people, not just one, find a citizen guilty. I think this balances the power of the prosecution by forcing it to form a more compelling case, because it has to persuade multiple unbiased people. I think the founding fathers took both of these factors into account when requiring a trial by jury. Mostly, though, I think this was a way to give citizens a shield of protection against the prosecution, which has historically held the advantage in criminal trials. The founding fathers also had a direct influence upon the wording of the Sixth Amendment; the state and district clause owes its presence to James Madison, who fought to establish that the jury must be drawn from the neighborhood of the crime (United States 1514). His efforts were rebuffed by the Senate, but “the present language was adopted as a compromise” due to his efforts (United States 1515). From his actions I think it’s pretty clear that the founding fathers were actively interested in preserving citizen’s liberty by providing for a just trial.
Next, the arraignment, confrontation of witnesses and compulsory process clauses were all held by the founding fathers to be “fundamental” to due process of law (United States 1517, 1525). The arraignment clause, which states that the accused must be informed of the charges against them, prevents abuses such as false accusations and ensures that the accused understands the charges (“The 6th Amendment”). This is a necessary first step to any just trial, as the defendant must understand the charges against them before they can properly form a defense. This provides the defense with an equal footing with the prosecution, because the defense understands the prosecution’s goals and is therefore able to form a counterargument. It also guarantees that there will be real charges brought against the defendant, because this coupled with the public trial clause ensures that false accusations will be discovered.
The right to confront the accusing witnesses enables the defense to cross-examine witnesses in front of a jury and protects against the use of witnesses from outside the courtroom who can’t be questioned or inspected for truthfulness (“The 6th Amendment”). I think this probably derives from a history of citizens being accused, tried, and imprisoned without ever getting to face their accusers or demand that their information be verified, such as in the secret trials previously mentioned. The founding fathers most likely included this clause so that citizens would get a chance to confront their accusers and refute their accusations – a basic first step to any just trial, and part of the reason it was held to be fundamental to due process. Also, by preventing outside testimony, the founding fathers created an equal balance of power between the prosecution and the defense, because the prosecution can’t use witnesses that the defense can’t cross-examine and attempt to prove unreliable.
Next, the compulsory process of producing witnesses in the defendant’s favor enables the defendant to produce their version of events (“The 6th Amendment”). In England the accused could not call witnesses in cases of treason or felony, and they were also not allowed to testify in their own defense (“The 6th Amendment”). This made it impossible for the defense to provide their side of the story or counter the accusations, and I think the founding fathers included this clause because they realized this had been a mistake in England. They saw that the provision of witnesses for the defense of the accused is essential to a fair trial, because by its very definition, a fair trial must listen to both sides of the story. Thus, requiring the defense to be allowed its own witnesses was a strong and straightforward way of balancing the power of the prosecution with that of the defense.
Finally and perhaps most significantly, the right to counsel guarantees that the defendant may have legal counsel to aid them in their defense. According to Jon Mosher in “Liberty versus Tyranny” from the Sixth Amendment Center, in English common law, those accused of severe crimes were denied legal counsel, while it was allowed in misdemeanor cases. This was clearly seen as a mistake, as in almost every state constitution the right to counsel was guaranteed even before the Bill of Rights was ratified, and the founding fathers included it anyway because of its significance (Mosher). The clause is important because lawyers have a much better understanding of legal procedures than average citizens, and thus are fitter to represent and defend citizens than they would be at representing themselves (“The 6th Amendment”). Providing the defendant with legal counsel is the single most important way the Sixth Amendment balances the power of the prosecution with that of the defense, because the aid of legal counsel ensures the defendant will have access to all of their other rights in court proceedings. I think the founding fathers understood this and that’s why it was included as the last clause, to emphasize its importance.
It is also noteworthy that there were references in the Declaration of Independence to unjust trials as reasons for breaking away from England. The Declaration of Independence lists such offenses as the denial of a trial by jury, judges being made dependent upon King George’s will alone, protection of British troops in “mock trial[s]” for murdering American citizens, and the transportation of citizens overseas “to be tried for pretended offenses.” The founding fathers were also aware of other injustices that occurred in England’s judicial system, “in which people were subjected to unfair methods of prosecution and investigation” and had no way to defend themselves (Mosher). I think this history of an unfair prosecution and lack of defense is a large part of what led the founding fathers to include the Sixth Amendment to protect citizens against the power of the prosecution. The founding fathers thus guaranteed citizens certain rights which could balance the scales, and they drew these rights from the perceived mistakes of the past and from what they deemed to be essential to due process of law. In this way, they balanced the power of the prosecution against the rights of citizens of America.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Sixth Amendment many ways, but one of the most significant occurred in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. According to Bal and Brenner in “The impact and history behind the Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” a man named Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested on suspicion of breaking into a bar, vandalizing and stealing. Gideon couldn’t afford a lawyer, and the state of Florida refused to appoint him counsel (Bal). The jury found him guilty of the offense and sentenced him to five years in prison, but Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court, believing his rights had been breached (Bal). The Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to deny the right to counsel, and that the Sixth Amendment grants defendants “the right to counsel in criminal trials …even if they cannot afford [it] themselves” (Bal). The decision caused 2,000 other convicts in Florida to be released because they’d also been denied counsel; Gideon was retried and found not guilty (Bal). I think this is one of the most significant court cases regarding the Sixth Amendment because as I stated earlier, the right to counsel is the most important part of the amendment. Without the aid of a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of the court process, an average citizen cannot be expected to put up much of a defense in court. This is perhaps the most significant way in which the Sixth Amendment balances the power of the prosecution – it gives it an equal opponent.
The founding fathers stressed the importance of personal liberty and a balance of power to all aspects of a fair democracy. This is why the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a fair trial to all citizens, was so important to include in the Bill of Rights. It draws from the correction of mistakes of the past, as well as the rights believed to be integral to the judicial process. It is one of the most significant amendments because it protects citizens from the unfair denial of their freedom and balances the power of the prosecution against that of the citizen on trial. The Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment to provide counsel to the accused even if they cannot afford it, which ensures that the prosecution will find an equal opponent in the defense. Thus the Sixth Amendment paved the way to a fair trial as we would define it today.
Bal, B. Sonny, and Lawrence H. Brenner. “The impact and history behind the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.” Healio. Orthopedics today, Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
Mosher, Jon. “Liberty versus Tyranny.” Sixth Amendment. Sixth Amendment Center, 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
“The 6th Amendment.” Revolutionary War and Beyond. Revolutionary War and Beyond, 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
United States. Cong. Senate. Congressional Research Service. Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis, and Interpretation – 1992 Edition. 103d Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO, 1996. PDF.