Dan Walters

September 9, 2013

Dan Walters: In California Legislature, some games alter the rules of others

Our perpetual fascination with sports reflects, consciously or otherwise, the simple fact that for most of us, life itself is a competitive game.

Our perpetual fascination with sports reflects, consciously or otherwise, the simple fact that for most of us, life itself is a competitive game.

Games, of course, have rules, either formal or imposed by circumstances, to frame the competitive parameters.

The debate over whether Syria should be punished for using poison gas on its rebels reflects the rather odd assumption that killing people with bullets or bombs is acceptable, but using gas violates the rules.

Politics is one of our games and, not surprisingly, one aspect of its play is to change the rules not only of politics itself, but of other forms of competition – games within games, so to speak.

The dying days of this year's legislative session feature several games to change rules of games.

Take, for example, legislation that public-employee unions had sponsored to make it more difficult for adversaries in local government to play in the political arena by changing campaign-finance rules. The two sides battled fiercely for weeks until agreeing on a compromise last week.

But as that clash faded, another arose over another bill sponsored by the state Fair Political Practices Commission aimed, it was said, at compelling shadowy interest groups with nonprofit status to reveal sources of financing when they engage in political campaigns.

More legitimate nonprofit groups – including those who advocate political reform – complained that the legislation would hurt them with burdensome reporting requirements and pressed for changes.

Rules that determine who can sue whom and collect what are always on the political agenda.

For much of the year, it appeared that Consumer Attorneys of California, the lobby for personal-injury lawyers, and its allies would mount a late strike to change a 38-year-old law limiting pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases to $250,000.

However, it appears that the drive won't bear fruit in the Legislature this year, thanks in part to an equally vigorous campaign by medical care providers and insurers. Those who want change will likely try at the ballot box with an initiative next year.

However, plaintiffs' lawyers are one force behind another effort to change tort law – this one to open a new window for alleged victims of sexual abuse many years in the past to sue private groups that employed their abusers.

It's the latest incarnation of a long political battle, stemming from cases involving Catholic priests and Boy Scout leaders, among others.

Interestingly, the measure bars late-blooming suits against the abusers themselves and against public agencies, such as schools.

There was a showdown vote in the Senate on Friday, and the bill passed. If Gov. Jerry Brown agrees, therefore, this game over the rules of another game is over.

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