Celebrity icon Britney Spears captivated the nation last week when she publicly addressed her conservatorship for the first time, confirming the world’s worst suspicions the arrangement is as bad as it was thought to be.
“After I’ve lied and told the whole world ‘I’m okay, and I’m happy,’ it’s a lie,” Spears told an L.A. judge. “I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in hock. I am traumatized… I’m not happy, I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane, and I’m depressed. I cry every day.”
Spears pleaded to be let go of the conservatorship under her father after 13 years of her family dictating her every move, including how her money is spent, where she lives, who she sees, and the doctors who treat her. Yet the movement to free her of these legal chains, known as the “#FreeBritney Movement,” has become larger than the pop star.
Conservatorships are legal arrangements routinely reserved for those who suffer debilitating conditions, which include severe mental issues or old age. According to the Department of Justice, 1.3 million adults are under conservatorships that dictate an estimated $50 billion in assets.
Spears was placed under such strict supervision by her father, Jaime, in 2008 in what began as a temporary arrangement turned permanent by a California judge. An attorney named Andrew Wallet served as a co-conservator from 2008 until his resignation in 2019, to help oversee hee Forbes-estimated $60 million estate.
A look at Britney’s life over the past decade however, doesn’t reveal an individual who is severely incapacitated. Since being put under a conservatorship, the singer has released four albums, gone on three world tours, completed a grueling four-year residency in Las Vegas, starred as a host on the “X Factor,” and made cameo appearances on “Glee” and “How I Met Your Mother.”
Given her massive entertainment empire, it’s easy to imagine how a conservatorship could be used to exploit her lucrative brand, especially by a father who was largely absent from her initial rise and stepped in at a moment ripe to re-launch her career, working her against her own wishes, she alleged in court last week.
“I worked seven days a week, no days off, which in California the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking,” Britney said. “They’ve done a pretty good job exploiting my life… I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive.”
Britney’s testimony may have marked the beginning of the end of the controversial saga, which has brought attention to conservatorship reform over the past year as court proceedings — proceedings which she pays for including the attorney fees on both sides — have escalated in a bid to free her.
In March, two top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida, demanded that Democratic Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York hold hearings on the issue.
“In recent years, there has been growing public concern about the use of conservatorships to effectively deprive individuals of personal freedoms at the behest of others through the manipulation of the courts,” they wrote. “There are countless other Americans unjustly stripped of their freedoms by others with little recourse.”
“The most striking example is perhaps the case of multi-platinum performing artist Britney Spears.” pic.twitter.com/tfE8KJAZ4s
— House Judiciary GOP (@JudiciaryGOP) March 9, 2021
The two lawmakers cited a 2018 project funded by the Department of Justice that found “financial exploitation by conservators often goes unchecked by courts,” concluding “there is dire need for guardianship/conservatorship reform.”
University of Missouri Law School Professor David English, one of the nation’s preeminent legal experts on conservatorships, which are known as guardianships in most states, told The Federalist the issues outlined by the report referenced by Gaetz and Jordan is exactly what happens.
“If there’s no one minding the store, the risk of abuse is significant,” English said, emphasizing while many states have laws on the books allowing for limited guardianship, the courts often overlook abuses in the system. “Most people are honest, but we know that’s not a universal… The issue is beyond simply having a statute on the books but it helps.”
Nearly four months after Gaetz and Jordan’s letter, there remains no indication Nadler or any Democrats on Capitol Hill have any interest in hearings on the issue. Nadler’s office did not respond to The Federalist’s request for comment.
English chairs the committee related to guardianship on the Uniform Law Commission, which drafts legislation and sends it to states, and has proposed a laundry list of reforms now being considered by lawmakers across the country. The more than 20 reforms target transforming the way the legal system operates and oversees court-appointed guardianships as opposed to state laws. Those merely state a preference for limited arrangements, as is the status quo in many jurisdictions.
Among the recommendations, published through the National Guardianship Network that English also leads, includes ensuring “full access to a full or partial restoration of rights as soon as possible after a right is legally restricted.” In other words, providing an avenue for conservatees to seek reversal of their arrangements.
As of now, English told The Federalist all states feature statutes that allow for individuals to petition a court to terminate their guardianships, but practical problems present obstacles as seen in the Spears case. Does the individual know he can petition the court? Does he know how to hire an attorney? Does he have access to the funds to do so considering his finances are under someone else’s control? Last week, Britney told the court that for the past 13 years, she had no idea she could file such a petition.
“I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended,” Britney explained on why she waited until now to file one. “I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that.” Britney is far from alone. “It’s not easy for a lay person to do,” English told The Federalist.
Among the most jaw-dropping moments of her testimony was Spears’s claim she was put on forced birth control in the form of an IUD and has been unable to obtain permission from those who control her to have it removed.
“I want to be able to get married and have a baby,” Britney said, “but [my team doesn’t] want me to have any more children.”
English said he was “shocked because there is constitutional law against forced sterilization.”
“As a lawyer, it raised a major issue,” English said, adding his colleagues in Missouri are looking into its legality.
Those under guardianships also lose their right to vote in most states, presenting yet another issue of individual liberties.
“Most don’t have the mental capacity to vote, but that’s not across the board,” English explained. “This is a major civil rights issue.”