A conservative Republican lawmaker from Acadiana is throwing his credentials as a gun-rights champion behind a proposed constitutional amendment to require unanimous juries in all felony trials in Louisiana.
In a new political ad aimed at National Rifle Association members and other “chronic” conservative voters, state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, pitches Amendment No. 2, on the Nov. 6 ballot, as a chance to safeguard citizens against government intrusions on their rights.
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Miguez, a 36-year-old lawmaker and champion handgun shooter, has earned an “A” rating from the NRA while sponsoring legislation for the gun-rights group. In the ad, he speaks to the camera while the screen cuts to him target-shooting at paper silhouettes.
“Here in Louisiana we don’t take our rights for granted. And no jury of our peers should be able to take those rights away from any of us if there’s reasonable doubt. That means their decision should be 100 percent unanimous,” Miguez says.
In a 30-second version of the spot, Miguez reels off a list of rights: to bear arms, to worship, to “live free and raise our families the way we see fit” — rights he says are “conferred by God and our Founding Fathers." The screen flashes to a church steeple, a mother playing with her baby, rippling American flags, a yellowed copy of the U.S. Constitution.
“We can’t take any chances when the government takes rights away,” he says.
The ad is sponsored by the Louisiana Republican Judiciary PAC, which is run by Scott Wilfong, a GOP consultant based in Baton Rouge.
Wilfong said he plans to target conservative voters on social media and in mailers in northern and western Louisiana, though probably not in TV spots.
For the last 120 years, Louisiana has had an unusual and long-standing allowance for split jury verdicts in felony cases.
The ballot measure would reverse a Jim Crow-era rule that allows Louisiana juries to return split verdicts in all serious non-capital felony trials — from drug distribution to second-degree murder.
When the rule was first enshrined in the state Constitution, at a convention in 1898 that was steeped in the rhetoric of white supremacy, the required count was 9-3, for either conviction or acquittal. Delegates changed it to 10-2 at a 1973 convention, placing that requirement in a new constitution that voters ratified.
Oregon joined Louisiana in 1934, voting to allow non-unanimous verdicts in the wake of public outrage over the outcome of a high-profile murder case. The two states remain the lone exceptions to a requirement for jury unanimity in every other state and all federal courts.
Voters will be asked Nov. 6 whether they want to require unanimous verdicts in all non-capital felony trials for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019. Capital trials already require unanimous verdicts.
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The state GOP has endorsed the proposed amendment, but Wilfong said that so far his PAC, or political action committee, is the only one spending money from the conservative side.
The PAC’s most recent campaign statement says it raised just $4,500 over a two-month period ending July 29. A recent fundraising effort netted about $10,000, Wilfong said, “with the goal of getting the video and a little outreach” out first.
“I believe in it as a libertarian-leaning conservative,” Wilfong said. “Freedom from government overreach is certainly a conservative ideal. A jury can come and say, 'We want your gun, your freedom, your rights, and we don’t need a unanimous jury.' That’s scary.”
He said the PAC may push the ad geographically on social media, “if, say, there’s an NRA banquet in Ruston,” but the focus will be on reaching reliable conservative voters.
Wilfong predicted a slim turnout of between 20 and 25 percent for a low-temperature ballot, with only the secretary of state seat up for statewide grabs, and few galvanizing congressional contests in Louisiana to stoke heavy turnout.
Asked about Attorney General Jeff Landry’s seemingly isolated public opposition to the proposed amendment, Wilfong said he counts himself a friend of the state’s top prosecutor. “It’s an issue that reasonable conservatives can disagree on,” he said.
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Wilfong said he first approached Miguez with the idea of an ad during a legislative hearing on the proposed amendment. Miguez, who has appeared on the History Channel’s “Top Shot” television series, is “the most visible pro-gun member in the Legislature,” Wilfong said.
Miguez acknowledged the strange political bedfellows that have joined in support of the proposed amendment, which was authored by Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans.
Miguez said he is friends with his ideological opposite and that Morrell's sponsorship made him take a hard look at the issue.
“I have a lot of respect for his ability as a legislator. We just don’t agree on much,” said Miguez, an oil and gas executive who is also a lawyer.
The PAC ad is separate from a campaign recently launched by the Unanimous Jury Coalition, a collection of liberal advocacy and civil rights groups that has launched a well-funded campaign that will staff offices with field directors in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans and Shreveport.
Ben Cohen, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative and a leader in the left-leaning coalition, said polling shows that conservatives and liberals alike favor the amendment more than they oppose it, but that many Louisianans are clueless about the issue.
“When informed, there are majorities across political parties, across race, in support of this proposition,” Cohen said.
He said he hadn’t seen the Miguez ad but argued that the message of protecting liberty crosses political lines, even if some voters are less interested in the split-verdict law’s racist origins.
“It’s not a surprise people who care about the Second Amendment also care about the Sixth Amendment,” which guarantees the right to a fair trial, Cohen said. “I start with the history focusing on 1876 (the end of Reconstruction). They start on the history beginning in 1776. This speaks to everyone.”
The Rev. Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum said this week that the influential conservative Christian group would do its part to educate voters in support of the amendment.
Ed Tarpley, a Republican former Grant Parish district attorney who has championed the idea of requiring unanimous verdicts, said the different political bents aligning in favor of the amendment are “clearly on the same page here” in their efforts to reach people of different political viewpoints.
“Everybody’s concerned about educating the public on what Amendment 2 is about,” Tarpley said.