AP Nation / World
By Sudhin Thanawala
Associated Press
Mar 10, 2017 – 6:56 PM EST

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The State Bar of California approved an ethics rule that would subject lawyers to discipline for having sex with their clients.

California currently bars attorneys from coercing a client into sex or demanding sex in exchange for legal representation.

But voluntary sex between attorneys and clients is not prohibited as long as it does not cause the lawyers to “perform legal services incompetently.”

The new rule would completely ban sex between lawyers and clients with some exceptions.

As of May 2015, 17 states had adopted a blanket sex ban drafted by the American Bar Association, according to an ABA committee that looked at implementation of the group’s ban.

Still, California’s proposal was divisive.

Supporters said the relationship between a lawyer and client is inherently unequal, so any sexual relationship is potentially coercive. But some attorneys said the blanket ban was an unjustified invasion of privacy.

The bar’s Board of Trustees passed the rule Thursday as part of a long-awaited overhaul of attorney conduct standards that revised or crafted 70 ethics rules. The new rules approved Thursday will now go before the California Supreme Court, which has final say over them.

The bar’s ethics rules for attorneys were last fully revised in 1987. Lawyers who violate the regulations are subject to discipline ranging from private censure to loss of their legal license.

James Ham, an attorney on a state bar commission that worked on the rules, said it’s not a good idea for lawyers to have relationships with clients, but he objected to disciplining attorneys for consensual relationships “where there was no harm.”

“The real issue is a philosophical, constitutional one about how intrusive government can be in people’s lives,” he said.

Daniel Eaton, another member of the commission, said the existing client sex rule wasn’t working. He pointed to a lack of disciplinary action against attorneys.

Between September 1992 and January 2010, the state bar investigated 205 complaints of misconduct under the current sex restriction, according to an analysis of data that accompanied the proposal. It imposed discipline in only one case.

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