Reality Check: Nashville’s Deacon too rich for court-appointed attorney

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I used to love the show Nashville. The cast were believable as country music stars. The songs and music weren’t bad and Connie Britton is amazing in everything. 

I’ve also liked Charles Esten’s character, Deacon Claybourne.

Deacon’s a recovering addict who is always coming face to face with his demons while loving a woman who is always just out of his reach June Cash style. What’s not to like? He is literally a walking country song. After he finds out he’s the father of a 13-year-old, he does his best to build a relationship with her.

Deacon constantly walks the line between tragedy and redemption, which makes him relatable because it’s a line that we all walk at some points in our life, if not all of it.

And so, when he finds a special person whose biggest crime is being a workaholic but makes him happy, I want to be happy for him. But I can’t. Because their entire relationship is built on a falsity.

Deacon meets Megan Vannoy, a public defender played by Christina Chang, while being held in jail for suspicions of drunk driving.

Here is a quick recap of the entire series to this point: The show’s about two country stars: one’s a super star that may or may not be past her prime, Rayna James. The other’s an up-and-comer trying to take over her reign as the queen of country music. There are a bunch of other side plots with other people somehow connected to the music business. Rayna is married, Deacon still loves her.  They dated before he went to rehab the last time. Marriage falls apart. It starts to look like they are going to end up together. Everyone is happy. Rayna’s daughter finds out her dad isn’t Rayna’s husband, but Deacon. Deacon drinks for the first time in 13 years, which was also the last time he went to rehab and when Rayna got married. He gets in a car with Rayna. The two fight. She crashes the car. People assume he’s driving. She’s in a comma fighting for her life. He’s trying to plead guilty to the charges against him because he feels terrible for drinking and responsible for the accident. Some other stuff happens in between all this.

Deacon doesn’t want an attorney and wants to plead guilty to the charges. His attorney won’t let him and figures out Rayna was driving and all the charges are dismissed.

He offers to pay her fees but she refuses and suggests he buys her dinner instead. She’s a high-powered attorney who volunteers for court-appointed work after getting to know her husband’s murderer.  The two are happy on the show and will probably remain that way until Rayna decides to play with Deacon’s heart some more, probably through their daughter.

The only thing is in real life, the two would have never met. Or at least not under the circumstances of the show.

Megan was appointed to represent Deacon by the court because he refused to hire an attorney himself or otherwise represent himself.

However, courts only appoint attorneys to indigent defendants, those unable to afford one themselves, not to those who are unwilling or uninterested in hiring an attorney themselves that have the means to.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees one the right to appointed counsel if they face more than six months in jail or prison for their alleged crime, which includes all felony cases by definition.

In the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

“Reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”

To get a court-appointed attorney, often a public defender, one typically has to fill out a form requesting one that outlines their assets and inability to afford to hire one on their own. Then there is a hearing, which often occurs at the arraignment, where the prosecutor will likely ask a few questions to ensure no one is hiding anything or failing to report something. Then the judge will either order to have one appointed or deny the request.

Requests are typically denied when it appears to the judge the defendant has the ability to pay for an attorney. This could include selling assets such as an extra car or motorcycle or cashing out stocks. If a person has these types of assets, the court will likely require they make use of their available resources prior to granting their request for a court-appointed one.

More often than not, I’ve seen judges grant requests for a public defender, but it’s not automatic. I’ve also seen them deny requests if it appears that they are not indigent. The point of the court-appointed system is to appoint lawyers for people who can’t afford them, not to people who would be merely inconvenienced by the need to hire one.

Deacon is a hell of a guitar player. When he crippled his hand in the car accident and questions if he’ll ever play again, he orders the sale of his guitar collection. There’s about 20 of them. He’s toured with Rayna for years and co-wrote some of her biggest hits. He toured with another band earlier in his career/the series and was featured on the cover of a popular guitar magazine on that tour (and then was replaced as a result).

He has a guitar collection worth thousands. He’s made a lot of money on tour that he hasn’t spent on drugs and alcohol because he’s been clean and sober, and he has made a lot more money off the royalties from his hits with Rayna. In other words, he has way too much money for the court to appoint him an attorney. Megan Vannoy would never have been appointed to represent him and the two would have never met him.

But it’s a TV show so they are of course dating. At least until Rayna decides it’s time for her to go.

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