Right to Trial by Jury Clause -
6th Amendment

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 Right to Trial by Jury Clause

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.

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 victims monetarily.)

History of the Right to Trial by Jury Clause

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.

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 crime.

Ordeal by boiling water

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 in everyday life

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 applied.

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 district?

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 jurisdictions.

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 judge.

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.

You can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment Court Cases dealing with the Right to Trial by Jury Clause here.

Return to 6th Amendment

Other 6th Amendment clauses: Speedy Trial Clause
Public Trial Clause
Arraignment Clause
Confrontation Clause
Compulsory Process Clause
Right to Counsel Clause Amendments: Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.

Read the Bill of Rights here.

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