The raucous scene in Judge Randy Kennedy's Probate courtroom last Monday morning scarcely even called to mind an official chamber. Typically, the staid courtroom where final wills and estates go on indefinite life support is muted and somber. Today, it resembled more closely the local rock joints Danny Tate used to play in the 1980s.
Women wearing sandals and denim capris sauntered in and out of the room, where an aging rocker in acid-washed skinny jeans sat with the letters L, U, S, and T tattooed on his knuckles. Throughout the gallery, a woman circulated like the merch chick at a Mercy Lounge show. She brandished a T-shirt, draped across her arm, which bore the same message seen on row after row of supporters: "FREE DANNY TATE!!!"
The mood was completely different from last December, when an attorney for the Nashville composer, songwriter, former pop-rocker and recovering crack addict had pleaded for him to be restored control of his life. But the strange assortment of spectators wasn't the only thing that had changed. Over the months since, the case had become a cause célébre detailed in a Scene cover story ("Court-Ordered Hell," Jan. 21, 2010). Now there was a TV camera, its lens and the eyes of its viewing audience trained on Judge Kennedy. There was even an observing member of the disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, who requested anonymity and would not speak on the record.
Tate himself, with nine months of hard-won sobriety under his belt, sat composedly in a smart dark-gray suit, his face clean-shaven, his hair neatly parted. After nearly two and a half hours of testimony — and two and a half years of incredibly expensive legal warfare — Judge Kennedy spoke.
"He's the captain of his ship," the judge said, as the room held its breath. "He's the master of his own destiny. The conservatorship served its purpose, and no longer serves a purpose."
The supporters in the gallery erupted. They shattered the measured quiet of the chamber, like extras in some bad courtroom drama. But one person didn't seem to share the joy. As his supporters pressed in, a weary smile turned the corners of Danny Tate's mouth.
"It's a little bit of an empty feeling right now," he said.
If the fruits of this long legal slog feel hollow to Danny, there's good reason. Seven months ago, Danny Tate was on the run, living out of cheap motels, fearing the writ of body attachment issued by Judge Kennedy that could lock him up in a Vanderbilt psychiatric ward. He had been fighting the system for more than two years. His brother David, president of a successful Memphis product promotions company, was named conservator of Danny's estate in October 2007 — after he convinced Judge Kennedy that his brother was a crack addict so desperate he was facing death.
It's inarguable that Danny Tate was in bad shape back in 2007. The preacher's son turned hunky '80s rocker had squandered tens of thousands of dollars on the drug, along with much of his early career promise. David says he was alarmed by his brother's health. Danny, he said, had always done a good job of hiding his addiction from others. But now he was gaunt, his face drawn, his belly distended. Speaking today, David Tate says he couldn't just watch his little brother kill himself.
Mental health care professionals say that a brother or sister, however well-meaning, is often the worst candidate for control over situations like Danny Tate's. They argue the accumulated resentments and complex (if not downright contentious) familial relationships can cloud judgment and hurt all involved.
Yet David Tate says he had nothing but the best intentions in seeking conservatorship over his brother. He tells the Scene he simply wanted to cut Danny's access to quick cash for crack — a life-saving measure, in his eyes.
Without the due process owed Tate by the Fourteenth Amendment, a legal arrangement akin to civil death was granted. It gave David control over Danny's sizable nest egg and investments totaling roughly $600,000 — along with his property and his ability to enter into contracts and make his own medical decisions.
Danny told the Scene once that he would only be set loose from the conservatorship after his assets were drained. Intentionally or not, it turned out to be technically almost true. While those wearing crisp T-shirts bearing his name cheered and smiled the smiles of unequivocal victory, it was hard to see any reason for celebration beyond his release from the conservatorship.
Danny's investments and nest egg are all but spent. They've been depleted over the past two and a half years — by his living expenses, by the 2008 stock market crash, by the crack he was consuming in the conservatorship's early days. Most gallingly, they've been drained by attorneys' fees on both sides of the fight — which, thanks to an increasingly controversial legal quirk, were all paid out of Danny's pocket.
Depending on whom you ask, it's difficult to ascertain to whom the victory belongs. His supporters suggest that when Kennedy declined to grant a final hearing on his case, Danny won by seeking interlocutory appeal, forcing the issue. They say that when psychiatric reports showed Danny was clean and sober — on the word of the very doctor the court had ordered him to see all along — there was no excuse left to keep the conservatorship in place.
But in David Tate's eyes, the winner was the system trying to help his recalcitrant brother, as much as he fought it every step of the way. And in his brother's estimation, Danny didn't get much for the money he spent fighting it.
"Wanna know why Danny's free today?" David asked the Scene. "He went to the psychiatrist and had the evaluation that the court had ordered two years ago. Then the evaluation came back and he's got personality disorders, but he's been clean and sober for nine months. He's capable of handling his affairs. Those two things in the last 10 days were all that was ever needed.
"If Danny had cooperated, he'd have been out of this thing a long time ago."
That claim brings into focus the Catch-22 at the heart of Danny Tate's legal woes, now being echoed in similar cases across the state. The absence of process served to Danny at the outset was troubling. So was the ease with which he was made a ward — a state in which a man legally becomes a cipher, a nonentity with no say over his assets. Legal scholars have long warned of the hazards of such deprivation.
So if the ward believes this is wrong, does he fight it (as is his right) with everything he has — which will only double the rate at which he loses his assets? Or if the ward is as sick as Danny was, should he comply? Should he see the psychiatrists? Should he submit to the drug testing? Should he cooperate? There's an argument to be made, and David would undoubtedly make it, that Danny would be better off if he had.
But as the proceedings grew more contentious, Danny never believed they'd let him go. At least not if he had anything left. And, in fact, the court seemed not to heed the warning of the chief physician at a rehabilitation center where Danny was treated for a month. The physician said the sibling-controlled conservatorship was corrosive, venomous and not at all conducive to Danny's recovery. Yet the court persisted — causing some to question whether Danny's best interest was ever even a concern.
At times, Danny seemed to flourish despite the conservatorship, flouting the court orders for testing and treatment, intercepting royalty checks and blazing his own trail to sobriety while sticking to the 12 Steps. David, on the other hand, said his brother wouldn't have been able to do any of that if he'd had access to his drug money. Danny, he asserts, would be dead now.
There is one group, however, that emerges from this story as a clearcut winner: the attorneys. Paul Housch, David's attorney for the conservatorship, has billed roughly $100,000 since October 2007. Danny's attorney, Michael Hoskins, has also run up an expensive tab since he was hired in the fall of 2008 — nearly as much as Housch. At the moment, to pay them, Danny faces the prospect of selling his already flood-gutted Bellevue home.
Perhaps saddest of all, there is also a clear and possibly permanent loser: the relationship between the Tates. As David left the courtroom, the brothers did not look at one another. They did not address each other, or mutter even a perfunctory greeting. David said he is willing to mend the fences. Danny isn't ready to countenance reconciliation. Instead, he says he intends to file a lawsuit against his brother, Housch and, if possible, Kennedy. For now, the brothers remain locked in a kind of détente. One insists he saved his younger brother's life. The other insists his older brother tried to take it away.
As Danny left the courtroom Monday afternoon, with one fight finished and another looming, it's no wonder he was one of the few not sharing in the jubilation. Money clearly wasn't the only thing he'd lost over the past two and a half years. Now it remains to be seen if Danny Tate will ever be truly free.
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