Today I’m harkening back to a long-dormant occasional series of reflections I’ve undertaken on all of the amendments to the United States Constitution. As of last spring, I had only made in through number five, so today I’ll be picking up with the Sixth Amendment. The text reads as follows:
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.
I really like this amendment for the legal guarantees it proffers us as citizens. Though I’d question how “speedy” our justice system tends to be in the United States, the promise of a public trial, clear information about the charges against us, an open-minded local jury, and the right to legal representation/counsel are quite heartening. This last bit is, in my estimation, a helpful construction and feature of the early ethos of the United States that sought to, in some ways, democratize justice. Despite whatever crimes, social class, economic situation, or anything else the accused might represent, the fact that our country quite early on allowed everyone the right to have “the Assistance of Counsel” is a great commitment.
As a principle enshrined in our nation’s foundational document, the impartiality of justice is an important one here. While in some ways a goal that can never be reached entirely (who, after all, is completely impartial?), its aspirations for a level playing field for citizens is important.
Because the Sixth Amendment represents such a high ideal, it constantly calls into question the times we have not followed its course. When impartiality and unfairness have threatened to reign supreme during the Jim Crow era, in the midst of Red scares, or in our era of terrorist fears, this section of the Bill of Rights has always been there confronting our national actions with our proudest aspirations. The Constitution is, here, like in so many places, a mirror into which we as a nation must look to see if we are measuring up. A yardstick of sorts by which we can see if what we loftily proclaim is how we actually live. Some would argue this can be annoying and downright inconvenient at times, but I’m glad it is there.