Trial by Jury: Why We Have the Sixth Amendment
Updated: May 18
“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 defence”
Like many amendments, the Sixth Amendment stems from dissatisfaction with old English common law. Throughout the 15th – 17th centuries, English defendants were very often informed of charges against them only when they entered the courtroom. They were not made aware in advance of their accusers, nor which evidence was to be used against them. This prevented the defendant from having sufficient time to prepare a defense, and more often than not, shifted the burden of proof onto them. Further, defendants were required to answer questions that could implicate them. However, subsequent common law established that this practice was not permitted in England.
This is important because colonists argued that the rights of the Englishmen extended to them. However, they often had their common law rights infringed upon. A Virginia Law Review article notes how colonies “were at the mere will of the royal Governor, an accused was called before the Governor and his council, which, without right often sat as a court of inquiry, their proceedings were very inquisitional and ofttimes overbearing (783).” Throughout the 1600’s colonists complained they were deprived of their rights by the governor, and in the early 1700’s, Governor Cornbury of New York said the English Bill of Rights didn’t apply to colonists.
The article further notes that during the New England Revolution in 1689, colonists who “insisted upon their privileges as Englishmen before this body [the courts] ‘were severely handled, not only imprisoned for several weeks, but fined and bound to their good behavior’ ” and it was found that common law and the Magna Carta was not applicable to New England (784).
Thus, it only makes sense that the Founders would incorporate the language of the Sixth Amendment as protection against an unhinged government trampling sacred rights.