While judicial corporal punishments like flogging, caning, whipping or strapping are no longer used in the U.S. or most other semi-civilized countries, Nashville Probate Judge Randy Kennedy recently showed his own flair for financial flogging in ordering the sale of songwriter Danny Tate’s home. The action was executed in response to outstanding legal bills generated in a highly questionable conservatorship case which Tate has vigorously fought and successfully raised troubling questions over with regard to Kennedy and lawyers involved with this action. Tennessee’s court system, including judicial conduct, has been scrutinized in recent years. Within days of his house being auctioned, Tate was before a Tennessee Bar Association panel telling his story. Tate’s case along with others out of Kennedy’s court were highlighted that day as they have been many times before suggesting that the state’s legal corruption extends to government oversight seemingly more committed to protecting the legal industry than the general public.
A series of articles entitled Musician Danny Tate’s conservatorship: a case of caring or corruption? (Part One Part Two Part Three) provides the long, sordid details of Tate’s plight. Questions were present from the beginning of this action at which time David Tate is alleged to have used a fraudulent Durable General Power of Attorney to gain initial control of Danny Tate’s finances and then fund attorney Paul Housch’s October 2007 petitioning for him to be appointed his brother’s “temporary” conservator. After years of their existence denied, recordings of Tate’s conservatorship hearings surfaced and provide interesting insight as to the administrative ease and casualness of process by which this life-altering status was granted.
For nearly three years, Danny Tate simultaneously fought to regain control over not just substance abuse, but also his civil and property rights. A ruling reversal on the process by which Tate was conserved finally prompted a hearing to either make permanent or terminate the 32-month “temporary” conservatorship. A January 2010 Nashville Scene article described the ruling reversal as “meaning the Probate Court had strayed so far from established legal procedure that an extraordinary judicial slap on the wrist was dealt to Kennedy.”
Danny Tate’s day in court came on May 24, 2010, and took place in a courtroom full of Tate supporters along with a local television camera crew. The hearing quickly evolved into what seemed a scripted media event with Danny Tate’s “release” from the conservatorship front and center for all – especially the cameras – to see. While “they saved him” was a prominent, recurring theme used to publicly justify the 32-month legal ordeal which left Tate destitute, nothing truly ended that day. Legal gamesmanship kept Kennedy’s court in control of Tate’s assets – and to a large degree, his life.
Court filings indeed continued as Tate attempted to restore his assets once valued at $2.5 million and, often since his “release,” Tate has represented himself. Between legal bills assessed by Michael Hoskins, Tate’s one-time attorney, and Housch, the attorney hired by David Tate to pursue the conservatorship, Danny Tate is said to owe more than $150,000.
Regarding the legal bills, Housch told WSMV-TV “it’s the law, that’s what the conservatorship provides.” He went on saying the conservatorship “provided for the avenues for Mr. Tate to get better, to get well and through the administration of the court and the conservatorship, Mr. Tate is still alive today. He should be thankful for that.” However, despite the recurring “salvation” theme, Danny Tate reminds about the conservatorship that “I went in a millionaire, now they’ve rendered me homeless.”
And the legal bills for which Danny Tate is, per the law, responsible prompt troubling questions for anyone believing our courts should be venues of justice and protection, not exploitation and greed. The manner in which these legal bills were generated deserves a closer look. Proceedings of a contrived nature, executed under highly questionable circumstances and supported by an assortment of legal industry insiders – lawyers, judges, court-related personnel and other officials (elected officials, law enforcement, etc.) or professionals who use our legal system to pursue self-interested goals that are counterproductive to the general public’s interests in their individual or collective capacities or both – are more common than people think.
Last week’s Tennessee Bar Association hearing on conservatorships, the first reportedly of four to be held across the state, will likely serve as the latest oversight hearing that reinforces legal industry protection apparently outweighing any sense of legal consumer responsibility or taxpayer accountability. And hearings like this are hardly anything new. Danny Tate’s story along with those of Jewell Tinnon, Ginger Franklin, Robert Thurman and Jerry Eckwood have provided a steady stream of Tennessee citizens coming forward to share often similar stories of legal abuse and misconduct – often focusing on judges – in a series of probate actions over the past years.
A December 2009 Tennessee Watchdog report found that of almost 3,000 complaints lodged against judges in the decade prior, the state’s Court of the Judiciary, the governmental body that investigates misconduct complaints against judges, acted on less than one percent issuing only 23 public actions (reprimands, censures, suspensions or agreed orders).
In late 2010, a Tennessee legislative study committee heard testimony of misconduct, abuse and judicial retaliation. Gail Kerr, a columnist at The Tennesseean, termed the culture of judicial protectionism a “black wall” and wrote:
Like the well-known code called “the blue wall” that prevents police officers from ratting on one another, Tennessee’s system to discipline judges is set up to protect those who clad themselves in dark robes and pound gavels. It is not set up to protect those who go before them seeking justice.
There were 344 complaints filed against Tennessee justices in 2009. Only one resulted in public reprimand. That’s akin to the system shrugging it off with a “my bad.”
And while Kerr expressed hope that lawmakers were preparing to embark on “deep reform,” that hardly seems to have been the case.
Tennessee’s Court of the Judiciary was called back before the legislature in September 2011. Per The Tennessean, “many complaints” were dismissed as “ridiculous.” The body’s secrecy was defended as being “important to protect judges from being smeared by baseless complaints” while critics argued that “judges, as public officials, don’t deserve that kind of shielding from public scrutiny.” Weeks later, Danny Tate spoke at a November 2011 hearing during which lawmakers reportedly warned state judiciary members to improve their investigating and disciplining of judicial ethics violations or else the legislature will do it for them.
A January 2012 blog post from Memphis’ The Daily News suggested this might be the year for judicial reform in Tennessee – including measures regarding judicial disciplinary actions. Hope may be said to “spring eternal,” but at this point, ongoing hearings delivering nothing to the public are the only things springing in this eternity!
In his recent comments to the Tennessee Bar Association, Danny Tate said, “Unless there is a moral revival of miraculous proportions within the Tennessee legal system, then these hearings are nothing but smoke and mirrors.” The show will go on – and that’s exactly how it should be seen. The cycle of “political theatre” hearings will likely continue. The special effects (smoke and mirrors) provide state legislators with an appearance of accountability, the cast supplemented by an endless supply of victims eager to participate and created by an emboldened legal industry that’s survived years of seemingly impotent-by-design scrutiny.
Moral revival, miraculous proportions. Indeed, that’s what it will take.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.