The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall … have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor….” This provision gives the accused the right, with compulsory help from the court, to obtain witnesses in his own behalf.
W. Cleon Skousen explained that this clause in the Constitution “allows the defendant to use the good offices of the court and the enforcement machinery of a U.S. marshal’s office to compel witnesses to participate in the trial in his defense.
“This is particularly important in criminal cases, since there is a severe reluctance on the part of others to become involved in such cases. Even when they have important knowledge concerning the facts of the case, they seldom feel duty-bound to come forward without a subpoena from the court.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 709.)
Stephen Saltzburg of The Heritage Foundation explained the historical significance of this clause: “For centuries, Britons had struggled against the common-law rule that forbade an accused from calling witnesses in his defense in cases of treason or felony, or, even when allowed, not to permit the defense witness to be sworn under oath. The common-law rule survived in the American colonies even after England had abolished it by statute. After the Revolution, however, a number of state constitutions established in one form or another the right to call defense witnesses. When the First Congress considered the Compulsory Process Clause, there was little debate over its value, and it became part of the Sixth Amendment without opposition. The clause assured that the accused in a criminal case was guaranteed not only the right to call witnesses but also a process to obtain witnesses, so that defense evidence could be evaluated by a jury, or, in a nonjury criminal case, by a judge. It was, in sum, an essential part of the right of an accused to present a defense.” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 355-356.)