Sixth and Seventh Amendments

December 12, 1991

Unlike other individual rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the right to a jury trial is also guaranteed in the body of the Constitution. The Sixth and Seventh amendments were added, however, to make sure such trials were fair and not subject to manipulation by the government. The Sixth Amendment deals with criminal prosecutions; the Seventh, with civil cases.

The Sixth goes beyond the Constitution's bare guarantee of trial by jury to insist that the trial be "speedy" and "public," that the jurors be "impartial," that the accused be informed of "the nature and cause" of all charges, be able to compel testimony, examine the evidence and have a lawyer.

The evils the Framers sought to avoid were lengthy incarceration based on unproven charges, and secret, rigged or show trials, which were not uncommon in English jurisprudence. The Seventh's intent was to make sure ordinary citizens the jury rather than officers of the state the judge had the right to decide what had happened in civil disputes. It says that "no fact tried b a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court, than according to the rules of the common law."

Over the years, the Seventh Amendment has been interpreted to give judges a great deal of authority relative to juries: judges may tell jurors their own opinion about the facts and about the sufficiency or insufficiency of factual evidence; based on that, they may direct or set aside verdicts. Over the years the Sixth Amendment has been interpreted (and augmented by statutes) to give accused individuals greater rights. For example, "speedy" has been defined so that if trials do not meet the deadline, charges can be dismissed. Another example is that the accused now not only has the right to hire a lawyer, but to a state-hired lawyer if the defendant can't afford this expense.

There is tension between the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press and the Sixth's guarantee of a fair trial. This was captured cleverly in a recent New Yorker cartoon. A judge say

to a defendant and his scowling lawyer: "Since you have already been convicted by the media, I imagine we can wrap this up pretty quickly." Clever but wrong. Even in high-visibility trials that are preceded by sensational press coverage, American juries have shown they can produce fair verdicts. When they don't, appellate courts reverse them. There is no such thing as a perfect trial, but guided by the Sixth and Seventh amendments, American juries today provide very fair trials, probably the fairest in the world, probably the fairest ever.

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