Category Archives: Sixth Amendment


Duncan v. Louisiana: Right to Jury Trial (05/20/1968)

Duncan v. Louisiana

Was the State of Louisiana obligated to provide a jury trial in criminal cases like Duncan’s?  

Argued: 01/17/1968

Decision Date: 05/20/1968

Decision Record: 7-2; yes

Justices in Favor: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William Douglas, William Brennan, Byron White, Abe Fortas, Thurgood Marshall

Justices Dissenting: John Harlan, Potter Stewart

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that a criminal case such as Duncan’s was allowed a trial by jury. However, the decision that petty crimes did not require jury trails was also made.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of Duncan, attorney Richard B. Sobol argued, “This case is here on appeal from the Supreme Court of Louisiana.

And it raises the issue that was to a logic stand assumed in the case immediately preceding, namely whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment secures the right to trial by jury in state criminal proceedings.

The appellant in this case was charged in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana with the crime of simple battery, which is defined in the Louisiana Code, as the intentional use of force or violence upon the person of another without a dangerous weapon.

This offense in Louisiana includes all batteries other than those committed with a dangerous weapon and is punishable by two years imprisonment without hard labor and a $300.00 fine.

In Louisiana, there are four categories of crimes for purposes of trial by jury.

In capital cases only, a jury of 12 all of whom must concur in a verdict is provided, that is the common law constitutional jury.

In cases in which imprisonment must be at hard labor, a 12-man jury is provided, but nine jurors are sufficient to return a verdict.

In cases in which imprisonment may be at hard labor, a five-man jury is provided and included in that category are such serious crimes as aggravated criminal damage to property.”


In the opposition, on the side of Louisiana, attorney Dorothy D. Wolbrette, “The facts of this case are exceedingly simple.

The simple facts as shown by the record make it clear that appellant who was 19 years old, even according to his own testimony, made an intentional bodily contact on the victim who was 14 years old without his consent.

The simple facts of this case show that the appellant committed a simple battery of misdemeanor.

That he was given a fair trial and that he was sentenced to 60 days in the Parish Jail, and a $150.00 fine.

The 60-day sentence for a simple battery brings this case squarely under this Court’s decision in Cheff versus Schnackenberg, if the Sixth Amendment jury trial right applies to the states.

Cheff held that the imposition of an actual sentence of six months or less is constitutionally permissible under Article III and the Sixth Amendment without a trial by jury if the inherent nature of the offense charged is that of a petty offense and Mr. Justice Brennan, that answers your question about the federal system.

It would have to be a serious, I mean, it would have to be a petty — the nature of the offense would have to be petty.

Therefore, it could not involve any crime in a federal system with more than a year penalty because if you have more than a year penalty, you go to the federal — you may go to the federal penitentiary and this Court has held that that is an infamous offense in the federal system.”


On the majority side, also the affirming side, Justice White wrote the opinion. He wrote, “In determining whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough, in itself, to require a jury trial, we are counseled by District of Columbia v. Clawans, supra, to refer to objective criteria, chiefly the existing laws and practices in the Nation. In the federal system, petty offenses are defined as those punishable by no more than six months in prison and a $500 fine. In 49 of the 50 States, crimes subject to trial without a jury, which occasionally include simple battery, are punishable by no more than one year in jail. Moreover, in the late 18th century in America, crimes triable without a jury were, for the most part, punishable by no more than a six-month prison term, although there appear to have been exceptions to this rule. We need not, however, settle in this case the exact location of the line between petty offenses and serious crimes. It is sufficient for our purposes to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime, and not a petty offense. Consequently, appellant was entitled to a jury trial, and it was error to deny it.”

In the side of the opposition, Justice Harlan wrote the opinion. He wrote, “The point is not that many offenses that English-speaking communities have, at one time or another, regarded as triable without a jury are more serious, and carry more serious penalties, than the one involved here. The point is, rather, that, until today, few people would have thought the exact location of the line mattered very much. There is no obvious reason why a jury trial is a requisite of fundamental fairness when the charge is robbery, and not a requisite of fairness when the same defendant, for the same actions, is charged with assault and petty theft. The reason for the historic exception for relatively minor crimes is the obvious one: the burden of jury trial was thought to outweigh its marginal advantages. Exactly why the States should not be allowed to make continuing adjustments, based on the state of their criminal dockets and the difficulty of summoning jurors, simply escapes me.

In sum, there is a wide range of views on the desirability of trial by jury, and on the ways to make it most effective when it is used; there is also considerable variation from State to State in local conditions such as the size of the criminal caseload, the ease or difficulty of summoning jurors, and other trial conditions bearing on fairness. We have before us, therefore, an almost perfect example of a situation in which the celebrated dictum of Mr. Justice Brandeis should be invoked. It is, he said,

one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory. . . .

New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 280, 311 (dissenting opinion). This Court, other courts, and the political process are available to correct any experiments in criminal procedure that prove fundamentally unfair to defendants. That is not what is being done today: instead, and quite without reason, the Court has chosen to impose upon every State one means of trying criminal cases; it is a good means, but it is not the only fair means, and it is not demonstrably better than the alternatives States might devise.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. In the Constitution, no where in the Sixth Amendment does it mention “petty crimes.” Because this was not explicitly stated, there was no reason Duncan should have been denied a trial by jury. Like the justices said in their majority opinion, denying a jury trial would be considered both a violation to the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right


Hurst v. Florida: Jury Sentencing (01/12/16)

Hurst v. Florida

Did Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violate Hurst’s right to the Sixth Amendment in the light of Ring?

See Ring v. Arizona for more.  

Argued: 10/13/2015

Decision Date: 01/12/2016

Decision Record: 8-1; yes

Justices in Favor: Elena Kagan (LC*), Antonin Scalia (RC), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L), Anthony Kennedy (LC), John Roberts (RC), and Stephen Breyer (L), Clarence Thomas (R), Sonia Sotomayor (L)

Justices Dissenting: Samuel Alito (R)


Effect of the Decision

This case clarified that a final sentence of death had to be decided by an impartial jury, and not a judge.


In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, attorney Seth P. Waxman argued, “Under Florida law, Timothy Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered — rendered him eligible for death.

That violates the Sixth Amendment under Ring.

In Florida, and Florida alone, what authorizes imposition of the death penalty is a finding of fact by the court of an aggravating factor, a finding that the trial judge makes independently, and, quote, “notwithstanding the jury’s recommendation as to sentence.” Now, the State here contends that capital sentencing juries make implicit findings that satisfy the Sixth Amendment under Ring, which the trial judge then simply ratifies.

That is wrong. Whatever the jury’s recommendation might imply about the specified aggravating factors, the Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the notion that the jury’s verdict is anything other than advisory. Florida law entrusts the factual findings of aggravators to the judge alone, who may do so on the basis of evidence that the jury never heard, and aggravators that the jury was never presented with.”


In the opposition, represented by attorney Allen Winsor, he claimed, “Florida’s capital sentencing system was constitutional before Ring v. Arizona, and it remains constitutional in light of Ring v. Arizona.

What Ring required was a jury determination on those facts on which the State legislature conditions the imposition of the death penalty. In this instance Mr. Hurst got that.

The legislature has determined that the elements necessary to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty is the existence of a murder and one or more aggravating circumstances. And what the other side calls the advisory sentence included within it a finding, as this Court recognized in the United States v. Jones, that the jury had determined there was one or more aggravating circumstances.”


On the majority side, also the affirming side, Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion slip. She wrote, “The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional. The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

In the side of the opposition, Justice Alito wrote the opinion slip. He wrote, “Once the jury has made this decision, the trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function. The judge duplicates the steps previously formed by the jury and, while the court can impose a sentence different from that recommended by the jury, the judge must accord the jury’s recommendation ‘great weight.’ Indeed, if the jury recommends a life sentence, the judge may override that decision only if ‘the facts suggesting a sentence of death were so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.’ No Florida trial court has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years. Under the Florida system, the jury plays a critically important role. Our decision in Ring did not decide whether this procedure violates the Sixth Amendment, and I would not extend Ring to cover the Florida system.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. Hurst’s death penalty was not sentenced to him by an impartial jury, however, an impartial jury is what the Sixth Amendment specifically requires. Hurst was only recommended a death penalty by a jury, but it was a judge who sentenced him to death. The case law, Ring v. Arizona made it clear that a death penalty had to be placed by a jury, not a judge. Nevertheless, it was a judge that had sentenced Hurst to death, but because this went against the Sixth Amendment, it also violated Hurst’s constitutional right to the Sixth Amendment. The difference between an impartial jury and a judge is crystal clear. Therefore, Hurst’s death penalty sentence, issued by the judge, was overturned by the Supreme Court.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right


Betterman v. Montana: No Speedy Sentencing Guarantee (05/19/16)

Betterman v. Montana

Should the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution and guarantee a speedy sentencing?

See Sixth Amendment for more.

Argued: 03/28/16

Decision Date: 05/19/16

Decision Record: 8-0; no

Justices in Favor: None

Justices Dissenting: John Roberts (RC*), Samuel Alito (R), Anthony Kennedy (LC), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L), Stephen Breyer (L), Sonia Sotomayor (L), Elena Kagan (LC), Clarence Thomas (R)


Effect of the Decision:

It clarifies the meaning of the Sixth Amendment to only cover the speedy trial, and the beginning of the trial process. It does not extend to the penalty phase.


In Favor:

On the side of Mr. Betterman, attorney Fred A. Rowley Jr. argues, “The Speedy Trial Clause applies to a criminal prosecution through its culmination in sentencing”, arguing the sixth amendment of the constitution guarantees a speedy sentencing.

It is not cut off when the defendant pleads or is found guilty.

The Court has said that the clause guarantees an early and proper disposition of a criminal charge, and that guarantee applies to the guilt stage of a prosecution when most defendants plead guilty and to the sentencing stage, which may be the only place in a criminal prosecution today when a defendant actually mounts a defense.”

He states that the Sixth Amendment includes the right to both a speedy trial and speedy sentencing.


However on the opposing side, Montana, attorney Dale Schowengerdt says, “The Speedy Trial Clause does not include sentencing delay because its purpose is to protect a presumptively innocent defendant from the harms associated with a criminal charge.

That purpose is consistent with the text in history of the clause. It’s consistent with the remedy that this Court has said must apply to speedy trial violations.

And, importantly, it leaves defendants with other means of challenging unjustified sentencing delay without requiring the court having to modify both the test and the remedy for a speedy trial violation. The Speedy Trial Clause is unique among Sixth Amendment rights because it goes to the heart of the government’s authority to try a presumptively innocent defendant at all.

If the government unjustifiably delays, it may forfeit the right, which is why dismissal is the remedy. Sentencing delay doesn’t impact the validity of trial.”



In the opinion slip on the affirming side, written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she wrote, “This understanding of the Sixth Amendment language—“accused” as distinct from “convicted,” and “trial” as separate from “sentencing”—endures today. . . The course of a criminal prosecution is composed of discrete segments. During the segment between accusation and conviction, the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause protects the presumptively innocent from long enduring unresolved criminal charges. The Sixth Amendment speedy trial right, however, does not extend beyond conviction, which terminates the presumption of innocence. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Montana is therefore affirmed” with no right to a speedy sentencing.

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority side of the opinion. I disagree with the argument that was brought up by attorney Rowley: “The Speedy Trial Clause applies to a criminal prosecution through its culmination in sentencing,” because a trial is what determines whether you’re guilty or not, whereas a sentencing is what decides how long you will stay in jail, after you have been found guilty.

In Betterman’s case, he had already plead guilty, and then after waiting 14 months in jail for a sentencing, he claimed that it was a violation of his Sixth Amendment, which guaranteed a speedy trial and speedy sentencing. Betterman had already completed his trial, and was found guilty, so his Sixth Amendment rights were not infringed.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right