Right to Trial by Jury Clause -
The 6th Amendment Right to Trial by Jury Clause is the Bill of Rights'
second mention of the right to trial by jury. There are three
altogether. The other two are in the 5th and 7th Amendments. In
addition to this, the original Constitution itself mentions the right
to trial by jury in Article 3, Section 2. Obviously
the Founding Fathers considered being tried by a jury of one's peers to
be an essential bedrock of fair governance.
Why is it so important and how exactly does it affect the trial process? The 6th Amendment's Right
to Trial by Jury Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to
a... 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."
Importance of the
The Right to Trial by Jury Clause is a very important part of the
process by which alleged criminals are tried in the United States. The
right to trial by jury was called "the palladium of English liberty" by
Sir William Blackstone, a legal scholar with whom all of America's
Founding Fathers were familiar.
Right to Trial by Jury Clause
The primary purpose of the Right to Trial by Jury Clause is to prevent
a single judge or group of judges from making very serious judgments
about people's lives, some of which might affect the rest of their
lives or even take their lives!
The Right to Trial by Jury Clause guarantees that a wider group of
people will look at the evidence and hear both sides of the case before
they make their decision. If a single judge were given the power to
condemn someone to life in prison or to death, the alleged criminal
could easily become the victim of corrupt judge. Supreme Court Justice
Byron White put it this way:
"A right to jury trial is granted
to criminal defendants in order to prevent oppression by the Government. Those who wrote our constitutions
knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect
against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and
against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority. The
framers of the constitutions strove to create an independent judiciary
but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action.
Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers
gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt overzealous
prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge..."
So the most important purpose of the Right to Trial by Jury Clause is
to protect people from unjust judges. Judges aren't any different than
anyone else. They are just as capable of malevolence as the next person!
The Article III Right to Trial by Jury
Clause says that people must be tried in the state in which they are
charged. The 5th Amendment Grand Jury Clause adds a right to be
indicted by a grand jury for any serious offenses. The 6th Amendment
Right to Trial by Jury Clause adds that the jury must be impartial,
that the trial must be held in the local district where the crime was
said to have been committed and that the jury must also be taken from
that local area. The 7th Amendment Trial by Jury Clause adds the
right to trial by jury in civil cases. (Criminal cases are when a crime
was alleged to have been committed. These cases can receive a
punishment with them. Civil cases are brought as a way to compensate
History of the
The idea of using a jury made up of local peers was first brought to
England by Viking and Norman conquerors. It didn't become a regular
part of written law until the time of King Henry II in the 1100's.
Later it's use was reinforced in Article 39 of Magna Carta in 1215 AD,
the first official restraint on the monarch's power. King John was
forced to sign this document by the barons in his kingdom. This article
guaranteed that the barons had the right to review the king's decisions
and take action against him if he broke the law. You
can read Magna Carta here.
Right to Trial by Jury Clause
In these early times, the jury was not a trier of evidence, but a
gathering of witnesses. Local people would be gathered to witness of
what they knew about a case. If someone was believed to be guilty after
the gathering of the evidence, a trial by battle or ordeal would take
place. These were barbaric trials in which the accused would be forced
to fight in a battle or forced to experience some form of physical
torture. If the accused lost the battle, he was judged guilty of the
In a trial by ordeal, the accused would have to take a rock out of a
pot of boiling water, oil or molten lead. If he wasn't injured, he was
thought to be innocent! Or, if they looked at his hand after a few days
and it was healing, he was considered innocent, but if the wound was
festering, he was guilty! How would you like to be tried like that?
Their reasoning was that if the person was really innocent, God would
protect him. Other trials were conducted by forcing the person to hold
red hot coals for a period of time, walking over red hot ploughshares,
or by tieing someone up in a bag and throwing them in the water! If
they floated, they were innocent. If they sunk, they were guilty!
During the same year Magna Carta was signed, the Catholic Church
officially banned any priests from being involved in trials by ordeal.
The Church had an extensive court system prior to this time. After the
Church departed from being involved with trials by ordeal, the whole
affair of trials became more secular and the ordeals fell out of use.
It was at this time that juries transformed into bodies that actually
tried the evidence.
By the 1600's, the jury was viewed as a protection against unrestrained
royal power and had become universally accepted in English law. The
right to trial by jury was so universally accepted that all 13 original
states included a Right to Trial by Jury Clause in their state
constitutions. The Founding Fathers mentioned Right to Trial by Jury
Clauses in the Constitution and in three of the first ten amendments.
All of the other states to join the union after the original
thirteen also included some form of right to trial by jury.
By the time the Constitution was written, juries had been in use for
more than 500 years in English history. Prior to the Revolutionary War,
juries had often acquitted people accused of breaking British tax laws
or seditious libel laws, which American colonists believed were
unfair and against the law.
Anti-Federalists opposed to the Constitution believed the Article III
mention of the right to trial by jury was not strong enough. This led
to the inclusion of the 6th Amendment's statement that the jury must be
drawn from "the State and district wherein the crime shall have been
committed." Anti-Federalists, such as Patrick Henry and George Mason,
believed that local juries would ensure the accused's right to be
judged on his local reputation.
Many people today look at the Bill of Rights' protections as
protections for the guilty to be able to get away with a crime. The
Founding Fathers looked at them the opposite way. They looked at these
restrictions upon the government as protections for the innocent. Keep
in mind that they were used to a tyrannical system of government where
the courts and officials often had few restraints on their power. They
could throw you in prison for disagreeing with them. This is what the
Founding Fathers were trying to protect against when they wrote the
Bill of Rights, including the Right to Trial by Jury Clause.
Right to Trial by Jury Clause
The Courts have applied the Right to Trial by Jury Clause in various
ways over the years. For example, all criminal cases carry a right to
trial by jury if the possible punishment amounts to confinement for
more than six months. Any punishment less than six months is considered
a petty offense and the defendant does not have the right to trial by
jury. Even if multiple petty offenses are committed that could add up
to a punishment of over six months, the right to trial by jury is not
in everyday life
Originally, the Right to Trial by Jury Clause was held to mean that the
jury process must be conducted in the same way that it was commonly
conducted during the time the Constitution was adopted, in the way the
Founding Fathers would have understood it. This meant that juries must
consist of twelve people and all verdicts must be unanimous.
Later, after the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution, the
Supreme Court threw out this understanding. The Bill of Rights as
originally written was applied only against the Federal government and
not the state governments. After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was
added to the Constitution to ensure former slaves of equal treatment
under the law. The Court used the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause
to apply all of the restrictions listed in the Bill of Rights, formerly
applied only to the Federal government, against the states as well. You
can read the 14th Amendment here.
Through the process of applying the 6th Amendment's Right to Trial by
Jury Clause against the States, the whole idea of what constitutes an
acceptable jury was reexamined. The Court determined that the 6th
Amendment's Right to Trial by Jury Clause could not be applied to the
States in quite the same way it had been applied against the Federal
government. Eventually the Court started to allow juries of less than
twelve people, even down to six people, but not less than that. The
Court also changed its previous standard of requiring a unanimous jury
decision. The Court began to say that verdicts such as 10-2 and 9-3
were justified, but only in state courts. Federal juries must still be
unanimous to convict. The Court will not allow anything but a
unanimous verdict if the jury only has 6 members.
According to the Right to Trial by Jury Clause, juries must be
impartial. That means the jurors must not have biases or prejudices for
or against the accused before entering the courtroom and examining the
evidence. For example, if a potential juror is a relative of the
accused, he wouldn't be accepted as a juror because of his potential to
favor the accused apart from what the evidence indicates.
Likewise, if a case has received excessive media attention before the
trial, local potential jurors might see some of that media coverage and
form judgments about the accused before seeing the evidence. If a
person is merely accused of a crime, but the media believes he is
guilty, it would be hard for a person to get a fair trial if all the jurors had
been influenced by the local media's coverage. This is why cases with
excessive media coverage are often moved to other jurisdictions, such
as another county.
If a case is moved to another jurisdiction, doesn't that violate the
part of the Right to Trial by Jury Clause that says a trial must be
held in the district where the crime was alleged to have been
committed, and doesn't it also say that the jurors must be from that
Yes, that's right, but the Court has stated that the most
important right of the accused is to get a fair trial. If local media
coverage will prevent the accused from receiving a fair trial, the
right to be tried in and have a jury from that district is waived. The
Court allows one right to be waived in order for a more important right
to be protected, if the two ever come into conflict. The Court also
allows defendants to waive their right to trial by jury in most cases.
This is commonly done in plea bargaining. Indeed, more than ninety
percent of criminal charges end with a plea bargain and a lone judge.
Juries are also usually examined as to how much they are representative
of the local population. For example, if a town has fifty percent
Anglo-Americans and fifty percent African-Americans in it, a jury that
was ten percent African and ninety percent Anglo, would be considered a
violation of the Right to Trial by Jury Clause because the jury did not
accurately reflect the local population.
Crimes must be tried in the district where they are committed. If a
crime is committed in multiple jurisdictions, such as a murder spree
through three states, the crime can be tried in any of the affected
The jury is responsible for judging someone guilty or innocent of a
crime based on the evidence. The jury is not responsible for sentencing
the person or determining the length of a sentence. Sentences are
determined by statutes set by the legislature, and in some cases by the
Minors do not enjoy the right to trial by jury. Courts usually treat
minors differently than adults. Sentences are usually less severe and
there is a much greater focus on privacy. For example, minors' names
are normally not even made public in a trial.
can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment
Court Cases dealing with the Right to Trial by Jury Clause here.
to 6th Amendment
to Counsel Clause
to the Bill of Rights
about the 1st Amendment here.
about the 2nd Amendment here.
about the 3rd Amendment here.
about the 4th Amendment here.
about the 5th Amendment here.
about the 6th Amendment here.
about the 7th Amendment here.
about the 8th Amendment here.
about the 9th Amendment here.
about the 10th Amendment here.
the Bill of Rights here.
Like This Page?