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Sixth Amendment – Right to Trial by Impartial Jury

The Sixth Amendment provides many protections and rights to a person accused of a crime. One right is to have his or her case heard by an impartial jury — independent people from the surrounding community who are willing to decide the case based only on the evidence.

1791Sixth Amendment Is Ratified

The Sixth Amendment is ratified as part of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees the rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions.

1870Women Allowed To Sit On Grand Jury In Wyoming

A Wyoming court allows women to sit on grand juries, finding that their service will “give them the best possible opportunities to aid in suppressing the dens of infamy which curse the country.”

1880Race Bias In Jury Selection Ruled Unconstitutional

In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a West Virginia law excluding African American men from juries.

1898Court Decides Jury Must Have 12 People

In Thompson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that, just as in England, a jury must have 12 people when someone is charged with a serious crime.

1930Defendants Can Give Up Right To Jury Trial

In Patton v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that defendants can give up their right to a jury trial, and choose to have the judge alone decide their guilt or innocence. This choice must be made with the understanding of what they are giving up (that is, it must be an “intelligent” or “knowing” choice). In the federal courts and in some state courts, the prosecution and the judge also must agree not to have a jury.

1930Court Holds Right To Jury Trial Depends On Crime

In District of Columbia v. Colts, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that even though the Sixth Amendment does not make distinctions among trials for different offenses, the right to a jury trial may not apply if the offense is a small one. In 1937, in District of Columbia v. Clawans, the justices will rule that it is unconstitutional to deny a jury trial to a defendant who faces 90 days in jail – 90 days, they decide, is a serious enough punishment to require a jury trial.

1954Court: ‘Impartial’ Means No Outside Pressure On Jurors

In Remmer v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that when a juror has been the target of an attempted bribe, a defendant’s right to an impartial jury is violated because even an unsuccessful bribe can influence a juror’s decision.

1954Exclusion Of Ethnic Groups From Jury Unconstitutional

In Hernandez v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the exclusion of Mexican Americans from a jury, through the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges (objections to certain potential jurors serving on a jury without any specific reason), violates the 14th Amendment’s requirement that all people be treated equally.

1961Pretrial Publicity Can Jeopardize Right To Impartial Jury

If there has been an excessive amount of press coverage or other publicity before a defendant goes to trial, it may not be possible to find people to serve on a jury who have not prejudged the case. In Irvin v. Dowd, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a criminal defendant is entitled to have a trial relocated to another community to make sure that the jury will be impartial.

1961Court Upholds Different Treatment Of Women As Jurors

In Hoyt v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Florida’s rules that automatically exempt women from jury service and does not place women on jury lists. Women could, however, volunteer and register for jury service. The Court finds that women’s exclusion was justified because a “woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life.”

1965Exclusion Of Jurors Based On Race Unconstitutional

In Swain v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that prosecutors cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors of a particular race (as it had ruled earlier about ethnic groups). The Court sets rules for proving that jurors have been stricken because of their race. Having few or no minority jurors is not proof enough. It is necessary to show that minority jurors in a certain community have been excluded over a series of trials or over a period of years before a constitutional violation can be found. The Court’s 1994 ruling in J.E.B v. Alabama extends this provision to sex as well as race.

1968‘Risk Of Death’ Can’t Be Price Of Right To Jury Trial

In United States v. Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes the death penalty from the federal kidnapping law because, as written, the law allows the death penalty to be imposed only by a jury. If the case is tried before a judge, the sentence of death is not allowed. The Court concludes that this provision is unconstitutional because it forces defendants to give up their right to a jury trial to avoid the death penalty.

1968Court: Right To Impartial Jury Applies To State Trials

In Duncan v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury applies to state as well as federal trials. However, the Court allows states to change their jury rules for different kinds of criminal cases depending on whether the trial is for a serious crime.

1968Reservations About Death Penalty Should Not Bar One From Jury

A person who expresses reservations about the death penalty is not necessarily unfit to serve on a jury, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Witherspoon v. Illinois. The Court holds that a prosecutor can “strike” a person from the jury “for cause” (that is, because of indications that the person cannot be fair) only if the potential juror cannot make an impartial decision about imposing the death penalty.

1970Six-Month Sentence Triggers Right To A Jury Trial

In Baldwin v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that for any criminal trial in which the potential sentence is six months or longer, a defendant has a right to a jury trial.

1970Requirement Of 12-Member Jury Eased

Although it is not specified in the Constitution, the Supreme Court in Thompson v. Utah ruled in 1898 that, just as in England, a jury must have 12 people when trying someone charged with a serious crime. However, in Williams v. Florida, the Supreme Court calls a 12-member jury a “historical accident” and decides that what matters is if the jury’s size will allow it to reach a fair decision. The court finds that it makes sense to determine the jury’s size by the seriousness of the crime.

1971Jury Trials Not Required For Juvenile Cases

Although Kent and Winship gave juveniles in criminal cases many of the same constitutional protections as adults, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury in juvenile court.

1972Justices Relax Requirement On Unanimous Verdicts

In Apodaca v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that although the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous decisions for guilty verdicts in federal trials, it allows state courts to decide whether unanimity is required.

1973In Certain Cases, Potential Jurors Must Be Questioned On Racial Bias

In Ham v. South Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that where racial prejudices of jurors could affect the outcome of the trial because of the nature of the charges involved, the Sixth Amendment’s “impartial jury” requirement demands questioning of jurors about potential racial bias.

1975Juries Must Be Drawn From Fair Cross Section Of Community

In Taylor v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury be drawn from a representative cross section of the community where the crime was committed. In this case, the Court rules the requirement was violated because women were excluded from the jury pool.

1979Court Defines Underrepresentation In Jury Pool

In Duren v. Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that in order to show that a jury pool is not a fair cross section of the community because one or more groups has been excluded, a defendant must show that (1) the excluded group can be easily identified in the community; (2) the number of group members in the jury pool is unreasonably low given the number of that group’s members in the community; and (3) the low number of group members is the result of exclusion, not accident. In this case, the Court finds that the Sixth Amendment was violated because even though women made up more than 50 percent of the general population, they represented only 15 percent of the jury pool.

1986Peremptory Challenges Based On Race Barred

In Batson v. Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that peremptory challenges based on race are unconstitutional. The Court finds that racial bias in jury selection not only violates the defendant’s rights but also harms the community because it “undermines public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”

1986Death Penalty Foes Can Be Excluded From Juries

In Lockhart v. McCree, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that potential jurors who strongly oppose the death penalty can be excluded from juries “for cause.” The Court finds that jurors must be selected from a pool that represents a cross-section of the community, but the jury itself does not have to reflect that diversity.

1990Court: Fair Cross Section Does Not Apply To Juries

In Holland v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court builds on its 1986 ruling in Lockhart v. McCree that the jury pool must be a fair cross section of the community, but not the jury itself. In Holland, the court says that the Sixth Amendment requires only an impartial jury, not a representative one.

1991Race-Based Peremptory Challenges In Civil Cases Rejected

In Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., the U.S. Supreme Court rules that under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, parties in civil cases cannot use race-based peremptory challenges to reject potential jurors.

1992Restrictions On Challenges Apply To Defense Lawyers, Too

In Georgia v. McCollum, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is just as wrong for defense attorneys to strike potential jurors on the basis of their race as it is for prosecutors to do so. The Court makes clear, though, that its ruling does not prevent defense attorneys from striking potential jurors “for cause” if they express views about race that will prevent them from being fair.

1994Exclusion Of Jurors Based On Sex Unconstitutional

In J.E.B. v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that striking potential jurors solely because of their sex, just as with race, violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to treat all people equally.

2000Ruling On Sentencing Opens Door To Challenges

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a New Jersey hate-crime law, ruling that it violates the Sixth Amendment by improperly allowing a judge, and not a jury, to decide that the crime was motivated by racial bias, thereby increasing the penalty. The justices rule that any factor that would increase the penalty for a crime beyond the “prescribed statutory maximum,” other than a prior conviction, must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court’s dissenters warn the decision will cause widespread turmoil as sentencing procedures in other contexts will be challenged.

2004Court Decision Raises Doubts On Sentencing Guidelines

In Blakely v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that Washington state’s sentencing guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment’s right to trial by jury. The Court rules that all evidence used to justify increasing a defendant’s sentence beyond the “prescribed statutory maximum” must be submitted to a jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. Before this ruling, after a defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at a trial, the judge, not the jury, possessed full authority over the sentencing hearings. The Court’s decision invalidates Washington’s sentencing guidelines, those in other states with similar guidelines, and raises doubts about the federal sentencing guidelines as well.

2005Justices Invalidate Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In United States v. Booker, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that federal sentencing guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment. Under the guidelines, judges had the authority to implement factual findings to increase a criminal’s sentence beyond the “prescribed statutory maximum,” regardless of the jury’s findings. The justices find, however, that this system infringes on the defendant’s right to trial by jury. To remedy the problem, the Court says, judges should consider the guidelines advisory, not mandatory, when imposing sentences that will be upheld on appeal as long as they are not “unreasonable.” The Court leaves it to Congress to establish a new system that complies with Sixth Amendment protections.

2019Death Row Conviction Is Struck Down

In a 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court throws out the conviction of Curtis Flowers, an African-American inmate who was prosecuted six times for a quadruple murder by the same prosecutor. Flowers has been on death row in Mississippi for 22 years. The prosecutor struck a total of 41 of 42 black prospective jurors. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, said: “The state’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury. We cannot ignore that history.” The decision clears the way for the state of Mississippi to try Flowers for a seventh time.

2020Unanimous Verdicts Required In State Criminal Trials

The U.S. Supreme Court decides, 6-3, the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires unanimous verdicts in trials for serious crimes in both state and federal courts. Louisiana and Oregon had allowed defendants to be convicted on divided votes. The majority opinion said that those states’ systems allowed white jurors to make the votes of a few African American on juries meaningless. The ruling reverses the 1972 decision that allowed nonunanimous verdicts in state courts.

2020Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts In Serious Crime Cases Banned

In a 6-3 ruling in Ramos v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the Constitution bans non-unanimous jury verdicts in cases involving serious crimes. The Court rules that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial implicitly requires a unanimous verdict and that the previously acknowledged need for jury consensus in federal trials applies equally to state courts through the 14th Amendment.