Last fall the state association of trial lawyers, called the Consumer Attorneys of California, was the major contributor to an independent expenditure group that shelled out $550,000 to try to defeat Republican Tony Strickland in his campaign for state Senate. In addition, individual lawyers and legal firms around the state put in another $250,000 directly into the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Hannah-Beth Jackson.
So what happened this week when the first Consumer Attorney-sponsored bill of the year came up for a vote in the Senate? Strickland was one of just two Republican senators to break party lines and vote to support it.
It was an unusual move in a political environment in which elected officials have very long memories and are prone to hold grudges against political enemies.
What would the bill, SB 510, do? Well, think of those late-night TV commercials that feature people screaming out of apartment windows, "It's my money and I want it now!"
The ads are targeted at people who have been awarded structured settlements to compensate them for damages. Most of these people are former clients of consumer attorneys who won their settlements by viture of a lawsuit. A structured settlement means that the individuals are paid over time in periodic installments.
With the economy slumping, a cottage industry has sprung up that entices people to sell their rights to future settlement payments for a large upfront payment. Although the practice does provide the beneficiaries with instant cash, they generally receive pennies on the dollar of the total amount they would have been paid over time.
The transfer of rights to the structured settlement payments must be approved by a judge, and SB 510 would add a host of factors a judge must consider before approving such a deal. Those factors include such things as whether the beneficiary has ongoing medical needs that the structured payments were supposed to cover, whether the deal is in the best interests of the person's dependents and whether the purchaser is paying a market-rate price.
The bill is supported by consumer and seniors advocacy groups.
It seems like a fairly reasonable piece of consumer protection. It's worth noting that not only did Strickland apparently see it that way, but he also was able to resist the impulse to play gotcha politics by reflexively voting against anything sponsored by a campaign foe.