Sixth Amendment spells out ‘the magnificent seven’ rights
Judge Layne Smith
Q. Judge Smith, would you explain the importance of the Sixth Amendment? Thank you, Hal
A. Hal, the Sixth Amendment provides seven distinct and fundamental rights for criminal defendants. These rights are so important I call them “the magnificent seven.” Let’s take them in order.
1. The right to a speedy trial
American colonists lacked the right to a speedy trial and many were arrested, confined and left to languish. The Sixth Amendment prevents this fate.
2. The right to a public trial
The British excluded the public from observing a criminal trial if the Crown deemed the case to be sensitive. Private trials undermine the public’s confidence in due process and the rule of law. The right to a public trial protects defendants from malevolent prosecutors, corrupt or malleable judges, lying witnesses and jurors susceptible to taking bribes. Transparency and accountability promote the people’s confidence in justice and the judiciary.
3. The right to an impartial jury
The Sixth Amendment ensures a jury pool will represent a fair cross-section of the defendant’s local community. Jurors answer questions under oath and provide information about themselves. They swear or affirm they will be fair and impartial and follow courts’ instructions on the law.
4. The right to be informed of pending charges
The Crown abused its police power by arresting and jailing people without charging them with any crimes. The Sixth Amendment requires the government to tell defendants what they are charged with so they can defend themselves.
5. The right to confront adverse witnesses
The government bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the charged crime was committed, and the defendant is the person who committed the crime. Defendants can confront and cross-examine any witness that testifies against them.
6. The right to compel favorable evidence
Trials aren’t one-way streets traveled solely by prosecutors. Defendants can call witnesses, put on evidence and make an appellate record too. The Sixth Amendment empowers defendants to use courts’ compulsory subpoena power to compel favorable testimony and evidence at trial.
7. The right to legal counsel
Defendants have the right to counsel when the government initiates adversarial criminal proceedings against them. If a defendant is denied counsel at any critical stage of the case, a subsequent conviction would be unconstitutional and reversed.
Our founders feared tyrants, distrusted centralized authority and worried about government oppression. By design, these seven Sixth Amendment rights work in tandem to protect our lives and liberty from abuses by would-be tyrants. Thus, we are spared unjust confinements.
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County judge who often speaks and writes about the law, our legal system, and the administration of justice. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.