Sixth Amendment: Defending the Accused

The Passage

The Sixth Amendment was passed along with nine others that together became known as the Bill of Rights in 1791. There was a huge concern that without written rights, the national government would obtain too much power and become oppressive. The Sixth Amendment, which ensures the accused have a public and speedy trial, was passed to prevent the government from unlawfully targeting personal enemies. 

Amendment Text

“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.”

What Does It Mean?

The Sixth Amendment ensures that all citizens of The United States, regardless of what crime they're charged with, receive a public and speedy trial. Keeping trials public helps ensure that all criminal procedural protocol is followed and not secretly disregarded. Keeping them speedy prevents the government from indefinitely holding charged individuals out of malice. 

The accused must also be given an "impartial jury," which means that selected jurors do not have a personal opinion, involvement, or stake in the overall fate of the charged individual. Impartial jurors ensure that decisions are handed down based on the law, not personal biases.

The right to be told the nature and cause of the accusation allows the accused to prepare their defense, something impossible to do if the charges and evidence remain secret. The Confrontation and Compulsory Process Clauses further this goal. The accused must be allowed to confront witnesses and call their own to the stand. Otherwise, it's impossible to refute or provide some of the most persuasive evidence, making the trial unfair. But this is challenging to do alone, so the Sixth Amendment also contains the Assistance of Counsel Clause. This means the accused has someone well versed in the law to help them prepare their defense. Together, these clauses maintain the integrity of the judicial system and promote objectivity in the courtroom. 

Major Court Cases 

Court cases have been essential in clarifying and modernizing the Sixth Amendment. Powell v. Alabama is one of the earliest Supreme Court cases that addressed the Sixth Amendment in 1932. Nine black teenagers were accused of collectively raping two black women. Their trials were thoughtlessly expedited through the criminal procedure, which resulted in all the boys being convicted and sentenced to capital punishment. The Supreme Court found these trials unlawful, stating that defendants in capital cases needed legal counsel.

Powell v. Alabama paved the way for the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. Clarence Gideon defended himself in Florida State Court against charges of breaking and entering since the state only provided lawyers in capital cases. When the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that this violated the Sixth Amendment, they further extended the right to counsel to all felony cases. 

The 1972 Supreme Court case Barker v. Wingo tackled defining what constitutes a "speedy" trial. Barker was one of two home intruders believed to have beaten a couple to death. Prosecutors believed Barker wouldn't be convicted unless his partner Manning testified against him. Therefore, they used legal methods to continually postpone Barker's trial until Manning was convicted and volunteered to testify. Barker claimed the continued postponement of his case violated his Sixth Amendment rights, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court established a balancing test for deciding whether a trial was sufficiently speedy. In Barker's circumstances, where the state had limited resources and a backlog of issues, such delays didn't violate the Sixth Amendment. 


The Sixth Amendment protects the accused, but it's debatable whether the justice system fairly applies these rights to all. According to data provided by the ACLU, Black and Brown defendants, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, are disproportionately underserved by the justice system. Public defender systems are regularly underfunded and overburdened, which leads to insufficient investigatory capacities, limited meeting times with indicted citizens, and scarce pre-trial preparations. With such an expansive punishment system and underfunded public defenders, the Federal judiciary found that only 2% of criminal defendants go to trial - the rest either plead guilty to receive a plea deal or have their cases dismissed. This information has fueled several reform efforts that argue citizens' Sixth Amendment rights are not being protected. Controversy remains as to whether these unintentional issues count as violations of the Sixth Amendment or inherent and unavoidable limitations of the system. 

Why Care?

The Sixth Amendment is necessary for democracy. Just because someone is accused of a crime doesn't mean they're guilty nor that their rights should be taken away. It's essential to protect these Sixth Amendment rights to maintain our judicial system's integrity. If you see the rights of the accused being violated, advocate for reform on their behalf, and your work will benefit us all.

Think Further

  1. Why is it important to protect the rights of the accused? 
  2. Which Sixth Amendment right do you think is most important? Why?
  3. What right would you add to the Sixth Amendment? Why?


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Learn More

  1. “Criminal Justice Reform.” Equal Justice Initiative, 16 Mar 2020, 
  2. “U.S. District Courts – Criminal Defendants Disposed of, by Type of Disposition and Offense, During the 12-Month Period Ending September 30, 2018.” Federal. 
  3. “Powell v. Alabama.” Oyez,
  4. “Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).” Bill of Rights Institute, 13 July 2015,
  5. “Gramlich, John. “Only 2% of Federal Criminal Defendants Go to Trial, and Most Who Do Are Found Guilty.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020,”